Looking to the Skies: How These Innovations Will Shape the Future of Energy Efficiency in Flight

One of the biggest expenses involved in air travel is the cost of fuel. While purchasing and maintaining the airplanes and jets themselves can be incredibly expensive, the fuel that powers our flying transportation is an ongoing expense that limits airline profitability and keeps airplane ticket prices relatively high. Thankfully, the industry has been investing substantially into fuel efficiency research over the last decade, and advances are being made that will reduce the amount of fuel needed and how aerodynamic the planes themselves are. Here are five exciting advances that may soon change air travel.

Plane Design Based on Stealth Bombers

At first, it may sound implausible. How could you fit hundreds of people a plane that looks more like an arrowhead than the jumbo commercial jets we’re all used to seeing? However, building a plane with a shape that looks like a manta ray is one of best ways to maximize aerodynamics. This type of plane is called a flying wing or blended wing airplane. Its unique and aerodynamic triangular shape significantly reduces air drag, but it can also be substantially heavier, in terms of construction materials, when compared with a tube-shaped plane currently used for commercial flights.

Addressing the Extra Weight in Blended Wing Planes

The extra weight has been an ongoing design problem when engineers try to scale up the blended wing design to accommodate hundreds of passengers. However, Boeing has been working with NASA to design a blended wing commercial plane that is built of lightweight but sturdy composite materials. Their prototype, called the Boeing X-48, is a remote piloted drone that is helping the organizations to reduce its overall weight, as well as the amount of sound produced by the planes when taking off, flying, and landing.

How Blended Wing Planes Improve Energy Efficiency

Because they reduce the overall the overall drag, a major factor in commercial flight and fuel consumption, blended wing planes could very well change the future of aircraft designs. The plan to reduce the increased weight appears to be the use of carbon-fiber rods for the interior supports and an exterior made of carbon fiber fabric that is stitched together and coated in a special epoxy. Boeing says that their prototype blended wing plane could transport as many people as a traditional 777 jet and would be at least fifty percent more efficient than traditionally designed aircraft.

Double Bubble Planes and New Design

The blended wing plane isn’t the only drastic innovation in the shape and design of commercial airplanes that could drastically improve fuel efficiency. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have designed a plane that combines two fuselages into one chubbier one, combined with rear-placed engines. The shape creates beneficial drag, which means that the fuselage will actually contribute to the lift, not just the wings of the plane. The design incorporates light, new-age materials that would reduce the weight and thus fuel requirements of this plane, called the “double bubble.”

Could the Double Bubble Be More Efficient?

Those who were involved in its design believe that the double bubble airplane design could result in substantially improved fuel efficiency. Compared with a traditional jet liner with the same passenger capacity, a double bubble plane could be between sixty and seventy percent more efficient. Currently, the designers at MIT are awaiting their chance to test a prototype of the double bubble airplane in the wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Reportedly, Boeing has also designed a similar prototype that will also be tested at the facility.

Boeing’s Double Bubble Design

Boeing’s plane has a substantially different design than the MIT double bubble, but it is based on the same NASA research. The Boeing program is called SUGAR, or Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research. The plane travels at slightly lower than the speed of sound and has wings that are attached to the top of the fuselage with struts that connect to the underside of the fuselage. According to their estimates, this design could be as much as sixty percent more fuel efficient than standard, tube-shaped airplanes currently being used for commercial air travel.

Reducing Fuel Consumption by Changing Propulsion

The standard commercial airplane burns fuel to take off and to maintain cruising altitude once it is reached. Some companies, including Boeing, have been experimenting with a hybrid engine design for commercial airplanes. These designs incorporate electric batteries as well as more traditional gas turbines. The gas engines would be used during takeoff to produce the energy and thrust needed to break with gravity and reach cruising altitude. Once the plane has reached its desired altitude, however, the operation of the plan would shift to the batteries. There have also been experiments with using liquefied natural gas to power planes.

New Composite Construction Materials Could Reduce Plane Weights

While the average person probably doesn’t like the sound of commercial airplane engine parts being constructed out of ceramic, this is definitely being considered. The materials used to build plane engines and turbines currently are quite heavy; by switching to lighter materials, the overall design of planes could remain similar while the overall weight of the airplane could be drastically reduced. These new materials can also handle higher operating temperatures, which would improve overall plane performance. The design of new parts made of composite ceramics could drastically change the industry.

Composite Ceramics Are Tougher Than Kitchen Ceramic

If you’ve ever dropped a ceramic bowl or mug, you know that ceramic, generally, is brittle and prone to breakage upon impact. However, by creating composite ceramics that are designed to withstand heat and pressures, scientists created composite ceramics which are much stronger than the kind used to make household goods. The ceramic parts would reduce overall weight by somewhere between ten and thirty percent, could have a longer working lifespan, and could withstand dramatically higher temperatures than the metal alloys currently being used for these components.

Newer, More Efficient Engines Could Change the Game

Scientists and engineers around the world have been attacking the lack of fuel efficiency in commercial airplanes from every angle possible. One of those approaches has been the development of the geared turbofan engine. By adding a fan-drive gear to the plane’s engine, the resulting design is sixteen percent more fuel-efficient. The concept has been previously used, but only in much smaller planes. It took more than a decade to finalize the design for the geared turbofan engine, but those in the air travel industry believe it could be a transformative game-changer for the future of commercial flight.

Geared Engines Are Already Being Ordered

These newly-designed airplane fan-drive gear engines are already being snapped up as quickly as they can be built by the company Pratt & Whitney. Over 3,500 of the engines, called Pure Power, have sold to five airplane manufacturers, including Airbus, Bombardier, and Embraer. The manufacturer estimates that using the geared engines in planes could result in as much as a twenty percent reduction in the operating costs of commercial planes. That averages out to be about $1.7 million in savings per plane, per year, for the company flying them. They will also halve the amount of noise created and cut the plane’s carbon dioxide emissions by 3,600 tons every year.

As these and other advances in materials and design are implemented, flight will become more efficient, and possibly more affordable for the average traveler.

Featured photo source: Pixabay.com