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Published on April 7th, 2011 | by Tina Casey


NASA Tackles New Challenge with Green Flight Initiative

April 7th, 2011 by  

NASA funds projects to develop fuel efficient, low emission aircraftThe Space Shuttle hasn’t even gotten its last flight off the ground and already NASA has embarked on a new mission. This time, the goal is a little closer to Earth. The agency is dedicating $16.5 million to a set of four projects to develop more fuel efficient, low emission aircraft that contribute less noise pollution to the environment. The bar is pretty high, as NASA is looking for not just next-generation, but third-generation technologies that can be airborne between 2030 and 2035. Hopefully that involves more leg room…nah.

NASA’s N+3 Greener Flying Machine Program

The new program got under way almost three years ago, when four industry and academic teams were commissioned to study new ideas for greener aircraft. The next phase, funded by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, will consist of developing concepts and working models. Full scale pilot projects with a human at the controls will come in the next phase (well, barring another government shut-down). N+3, by the way, refers to the goal of developing third-generation technologies by the 2030’s. Numerologically speaking that’s a tad mystical for a government agency, but I guess every little bit helps.

Four Paths to Third-Generation Aircraft

Speaking of mystical, three of the four projects involve some pretty distinctive nomenclature. One team, the Cessna Aircraft Company, is charged with developing a protective “magic skin.” MIT is chipping in its ongoing work on a dual fuselage “double bubble” design. Boeing Research & Technology will building on an existing project called SUGAR, which may also result in fourth-generation technologies for the 2040’s. The fourth project is Northrop Grumman’s effort to develop a smoother wing, essential for improving fuel efficiency.

But What About the Biofuels?

While all this futuristic tinkering is going on, the Department of Defense is already experimenting with alternative fuels for aircraft. The Air Force and Navy have been testing a biofuel made from camelina, a weedy plant, and DoD has also been working with Boeing on a solar powered airplane.

Image: Airplane by Marshall Astor-Food Pornographer on flickr.com.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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