Today, every long-haul flight pumps up to five tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air – the equivalent of the average person's six-month carbon footprint. By 2030, it's believed that nearly a third of the UK's carbon emissions could be produced by the aviation industry alone.
Clearly, something has to change. Tackling the industry's carbon problem involves a huge range of factors, but the single biggest is its reliance on fossil fuels. To do this, we need to rethink aeroplanes themselves. What if we could design planes that run on low-emission biofuels, but still can carry as many passengers to their destination as quickly as a jumbo jet?
To design the aircraft of the future we sought help from Adam Omar, a PhD student of Aircraft Design at Imperial College London, who kindly agreed to act as a consultant on this project.
With his help, and taking cues from the futuristic design concepts of NASA, Boeing and Airbus, we designed a low-emission, high-capacity craft, incorporating a number of breakthrough technologies that could soon begin changing the face of air travel.
Aircraft design is a reflection of the technological maturity in all related fields such as materials, aerodynamics, propulsion and electronics.”Adam Omar, PhD Student of Aircraft Design
Most modern aircraft use gas-driven turbofans to generate thrust – jet fuel is burned and the exhaust shoots out directly through a fan to drive the plane forward. In a hybrid system, the fan motors are instead powered by electricity generated by a turbojet core.
Instead of being wing-mounted, the electric fans are positioned in clusters along the back of the craft. This has aerodynamic advantages – to get technical, it "sucks in" the boundary layer of viscous flow between the freestream air and the aircraft body, reducing drag.
It'll be a while yet before we can leave fossil fuels behind altogether, but the advancement of superconductivity will mark a huge leap in how efficiently we're able to use them. While much greener, today's biofuels currently simply don't produce enough energy to make them a viable alternative – but that could all change in a superconducting system.
Of all emerging technologies, superconductivity will have the greatest impact on the low-emission aircraft of the future. Whenever electricity passes through a normal system, some energy is always lost due to "friction". Superconducting systems eliminate this friction, allowing energy transfer with near-perfect efficiency – and a huge reduction in fuel requirements.
Blended-wing body (BWB) designs are nothing new: the idea of an aircraft that's essentially one big wing is almost as old as flight itself. Although to date it's rarely seen commercial use, the BWB concept may well be the next evolution of the passenger airliner.
This sleek, efficient shape reduces drag and means the entire craft generates lift, vastly improving fuel economy. The body naturally acts as a noise shield against the engines, as well as offering much more interior space for cargo, passengers and crew than a traditional aircraft.
With an energy density more than ten times higher than the lithium-ion battery that powers your smartphone, lithium-air batteries have been hailed as the way forward for electric cars – and they could be ideal for the aircraft of tomorrow too.
Lithium-air batteries are efficient by design. They're small and lightweight, using a sponge-like arrangement of graphene – a carbon structure made up of individual atoms - for an electrode. Instead of needing an internal oxidiser, they "breathe" oxygen from the surrounding air.
The aircraft designer collects the appropriate technologies and creates an aircraft that takes advantage of the advancements in those separate fields with the goal of producing ever lighter and more efficient aircraft."Adam Omar, PhD Student of Aircraft Design
One of the drawbacks of BWBs for passenger aircraft is that the design doesn't allow for many windows, which could be a bit uncomfortable for passengers.
However, technology could have the answer in the form of electronic screens that project a view of the outside. These screens could also display in-flight information and entertainment, or even switch to a relaxing scene of starry skies when passengers want to sleep.
No more squinting at tiny LCD screens on the back of the seat in front! With a curved OLED screen, these wraparound visors can display movies and games in full 3D, bringing a whole new dimension to in-flight entertainment. They're designed to automatically fold away on take-off and landing, or in the event of an emergency.
The BWB design affords much more interior space, and the efficiencies involved could mean operators begin rethinking the layouts of their passenger cabins to allow people to move around and socialise more freely while in flight.
Rather than have stewards serve drinks from the aisle, here passengers are encouraged to visit the bar for drinks and snacks, taking a break from their seats to stretch their legs and get to know their fellow passengers.
Any material that's lightweight but strong has clear advantages in aircraft design, which is why the industry uses so much titanium and aluminium. But scientists at Boeing have invented a metal that's 99.99% air – so lightweight it can balance on the head of a dandelion, but strong and energy-absorbent.
Large portions of seating, flooring and walls – all the parts of an aircraft that contribute a lot of weight but are not aerodynamically or structurally essential – could be made from this ultra-light microlattice, contributing to even greater fuel efficiency.
Aircraft are just one part of the puzzle – find out what airports are doing to reduce their impact on the environment.Read More