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Published on December 11th, 2015 | by Sponsored Content


3 Ways Tech Has the Aviation Industry Poised for Change — Again

December 11th, 2015 by  

airplaneAviation has always been an industry greatly affected by technology, since without it, there would be no industry at all. Numerous technological advancements and shifts have occurred over the years with remarkable regularity, too. From concerns over fuel efficiency and airline profitability to increased safety measures and attempts to improve comfort, change — much of it fueled by tech — has been commonplace.  

As technology continues to evolve and expand into every corner of contemporary life, change is once again afoot. Here are three ways tech has the aviation industry poised and primed for change from the influence of big data to the possibility and necessity of sustainability.

The Evolving Airport

One way in which tech is changing the world we live in is in the realm of scalability. Businesses of all types and sizes are expected to adjust to new developments at the drop of a hat, and, as such, can greatly benefit from tech that’s scalable. Natural shifts due to client load, season, growth, and the like are commonplace, and technology can aid in helping businesses negotiate those shifts more successfully.

Today’s airports are an example of that need for a nimble and rapid scalability. Everything from high-tech, fabric buildings* that allow for quicker installation of more sustainable hangars to pop up with relative ease, to data gathering and analytics that can be easily scaled to accommodate times of heavier or lighter traffic, is on the table, and the airports that make use of it the best are more likely to enjoy better profit margins than those that do not.

The Race for Sustainability

The aviation industry produces massive amounts of greenhouse gases, most notably: CO2 and NOx. What’s worse is the vast majority of these gases are emitted at high altitudes, which makes them even more dangerous. Even as climate change concerns are reaching the point of alarm, aircraft emissions are still projected to triple by the 2050. Why? Demand is expected to continue to increase around the world unless airline growth is constrained and strong carbon pricing mechanisms are put in place. Unfortunately, the airline industry continues to fight carbon pricing mechanisms, and the EPA’s tendency to drag its feet about setting any meaningful emissions-reducing standards is still its dominant MO.

Technology — if used well — can help, as just having better data has shown numerous ways to improve fuel efficiency. Other tech improvements are being developed as well. NASA is experimenting with new wings to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions, and they’ve also created a non-stick coating that keeps bugs from sticking to wings’ leading edges — a surprising source of drag. However, without regulation and government intervention that also curbs or limits demand while requiring the industry to make needed changes, aviation will probably continue to wreak havoc on a warming planet.

Aviation Biofuels & Solar Flight

halophyte-biofuel-boeing-masdar-instituteBiofuels have a long and controversial history, but they could be one powerful and easy way for the aviation industry to cut its CO2 emissions. The good news is that several airlines are heavily engaged in advancing sustainable biofuels. One of the most promising of these biofuels is from the use of halophytes, which can grow in salty waters and use aquaculture waste (a huge problem in itself) as fertilizer. This potential solution, which is being tested in a pilot project right now, came from the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium, which includes Boeing, Etihad Airways, Masdar Institute, and Honeywell’s UOP. One interesting thing about biofuel aviation fuel is that it actually burns cleaner than oil from tar sands or shale formations — something that would make airlines even happier.

Aside from halophyte biofuels, there’s potential with other advanced biofuels, such as algae biofuel and camelina biofuel, and there are even waste-based biofuels. Some commercial flights have already used some of these options. And then there is always the long-term potential of solar-powered flight. Whatever path ends up being most competitive, we can be sure of one thing, the aviation industry will keep exploring new tech and evolving.

*This article was kindly sponsored by Legacy Building Solutions.

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  • JamesWimberley

    No mention of the Airbus electric plane. It’s small and has a limited range, but it flies. Airbus are working on a commuter-size design.
    Aviation is taking this more seriously than shipping does. They do believe in technology.

    • Carl Raymond S

      I think the e-fan is the most exciting thing since the Tesla Roadster.

      If a one man plane can cross the english channel, then scale it up – how far can a 40 seater go – with tomorrows batteries? We know that bigger planes are more efficient than smaller planes – more payload per kWh – it’s the basis of the A380, so a bigger e-plane goes faster/further.

      The advantages are even clearer than with cars. Electric planes will disrupt – no question.

      1. Practically no fuel cost. With today’s flights, jet fuel costs upwards of $7,000 per hour. It’s about a third of your ticket price.

      2. No noise. People love flying, but they hate living near flight paths.

      3. Pilotless. The logistics are easier than autonomous cars, as you don’t have: falling trees, livestock, badly marked lanes, potholes, road-debris, other drivers in close proximity, inexperienced (and just plain bad) drivers, etc.

      4. Reduced maintenance.

      5. Lower minimum distance, fewer seats, for the economics to work. I see electric routes opening up initially using new (e-plane only) airports, connecting regional centres within electric range. The short routes will be first, and extend as the e-planes get bigger.

      • mike_dyke

        When they get them up to about 10 seater planes, they can really target the executive travel business!

        I like it!

        • Carl Raymond S

          Forgot to mention structural batteries. Here we have a real candidate, for batteries which are say, wing or fuselage shaped.

      • Richard Foster

        I strongly believe that a good compromise for mid-term targets with air travel has to be biofuels for take-off/landing and emergency use and batteries for inflight power.

        It’s the only way I can see a way out of emissions from aviation. They currently contribute about 10% of GHG into the atmosphere – even if they burned biofuels instead of jet fuel, there is still an issue since the CO2 is released high up in the atmosphere (thus would this biofuel really be net CO2 neutral?) and there’s also the issue of where we grow all the biofuel required.

        Using it only for take off and landing would substantially reduce the amount of fuel required (and therefore land), as well as resulting in much lower emissions.

        I’m coming to the opinion that we already need to pull some CO2 out of the atmosphere through Direct air capture and afforestation, so we really do need to get rid of as much emissions as possible. If we can take aviation from 10% to 2% (i.e. an 80% reduction in current emissions from the sector), then that’s something we can probably deal with long term.

        • Shane 2

          ** even if they burned biofuels instead of jet fuel, there is still an issue since the CO2 is released high up in the atmosphere**
          Now you are getting weird. Gas molecules will mix in with the rest of the atmosphere. CO2 is heavier than the major constituents (N2 and O2) so even if there is some minor fractionation, CO2 is likely to be end up being a little relatively more concentrated near the ground. The reason CO2 is a problem is the absorption of infra-red wavelength EM radiation, much of it re-radiated from the ground and oceans after shorter wavelength sunlight has interacted with the ground and ocean molecules. What was your point?

          • Richard Foster

            Ok, I have misunderstood the issues with aviation. It seems that you are correct and co2 release at altitude has the same effect as ground based emissions. It is non-co2 radiative forcing effects from aviation that are altitude dependent.

            I need to think about it some more to see whether biofuels would therefore make a difference.

          • Bob_Wallace

            The more we can reduce flying the more likely it is that we could move to non-fossil fuel flight.

            If the Hyperloop doesn’t work we could at least move a lot of short and moderate travel to high speed rail. With maglev now at 300 MPH it might not be too hard to move 600 miles and shorter trips to rail.

            Possibly longer trips if we could cut the ‘check in two hours early’ and takeoff and landing times. There might be an hour or more of savings that could be applied to making distance. People might tolerate 1,000 mile or longer rail trips.

          • Richard Foster

            The key point if we can reduce flying. At present, this seems unlikely. Especially in the era of cheap flights.

            My concern with all the alternatives – rail, maglev, even hyperloop is that all these require significant (expensive) infrastructure. They also require societal shifts in attitude to make people use them.

            Can these be done fast enough to reduce global warming impacts?

          • Bob_Wallace

            If we really want to get off fossil fuels then we will likely need a price on carbon. That will increase the cost of flying and swing the meter in favor of RE powered transportation. (And/or flying with biofuels.)

            Between 2007 and 2014 China installed 16,000 km (9,900 mi) of HSR track. That would give the US a couple of coast to coast routes and a couple of N/S routes.

            If the Hyperloop works it could be installed faster as there is much less “land-shifting” involved and no problems with road/highway intersections.
            I think we should also be electrifying at least one E/W freight line route and two or more N/S routes. This could be done over time as our engines are already electric/diesel hybrids. Adding pickups for overhead wires and using the existing diesel engines on parts of the track not yet electrified would allow things to continue to run as usual while we modified the infrastructure.

          • Richard Foster

            In theory, that’s what is being done in the UK. But electrification is proceeding slowly.

            And the road-building continues…

            There are plans to build HS2 – a new rail line from London to Birmingham and then to Leeds and Manchester. May or may not happen. I’m not convinced by the argument for it at present.

            A HS3 has also been mooted.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Either we will fight against climate change or we won’t.

            I think we will. And that means that we’ll push harder to find and implement carbon alternatives.

          • Richard Foster

            I agree. The slipping in of the 1.5C aim in Paris is evidence that this seems to be becoming consensus, even in the neoliberal politics of the “Western” world.

            But it’s the dichotomies surrounding aviation that worry me most in terms of fighting climate change – take the UK as an example – there’s a whole thing about an expansion for Heathrow, because we “need” more capacity apparently – yet this expansion either at Heathrow or at Gatwick means the UK cannot meet it’s 2050 target of 80% CO2 reduction, never mind improve upon it.

            The old fashioned thinking still prevails in our neoliberal world.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Sure, but just because we head down the wrong path from time to time doesn’t mean that we keep going that way.

            Look at the new coal plants that Germany starting building a decade ago. Now they’re being finished and some of them will never be fueled up and turned on.

          • Shane 2

            Here is an interesting piece on contrail climate effects.


          • Richard Foster

            Whilst we use jet engines, contrails are going to be produced no matter what we power them with.

            Unless we switch to turboprop engine planes.

      • Shane 2

        The English Channel is 21 miles across at the shortest point. The NY to London is 3,500 miles.

        • Bob_Wallace

          If the Hyperloop works we might need planes only to jump from the most eastern part of Canada to the UK or European coast and from Alaska to the Asian mainland, those sorts of hops.

          Islands and places like Australia would still need air access, but we should be able to cut our flying mileage by a huge amount which would make it more reasonable to rely on biofuels. Or we might improve batteries to the point where they were good enough for the NA to Europe/Asia hops.

          We already fly polar routes. We’d be able to get ‘polar’ faster and with only electricity if we could tube it.

          (Some people have talked about going underwater for the hops but that’s too far ahead of the data right now for me.)

          • Shane 2

            Alaska to Russia is easily doable in a Hyperloop system. Underwater does sound 22nd century. When you have “geopolitical” problems with Russia they could stop access or put exorbitant charges for transit. Russia threatened the EU with stopping overflights for EU planes if the EU put a carbon tariffs on Russian planes using EU airports. They can play hardball.

        • Carl Raymond S

          So you would prefer to swim across the channel? I think a lot of people would prefer to fly.
          (Said the straw man to the straw man).

    • Shane 2

      You want an electric aircraft to carry passengers across the Atlantic? You are probably going to need metal-air fuel cells because they have the energy density required. Aluminium-air fuel cells or lithium-air fuel cells could fit the bill. You end up with metal oxide that gets recycled to metal for use again. Renewable energy can be used for the recycling. Hydrogen fuel cells are another possibility if you have cryogenic hydrogen. However you would need thick walled tanks and flash point makes safety an issue. Check out this plot of volumetric density versus mass density:


      Aluminium has massively better volumetric energy density than lithium, gasoline, or kerosene. Pathetic lithium ion batteries are in the naughty corner – bottom left. Lithium has similar mass energy density than kerosene and it is better than aluminium on that score. Lithium borohydride is nicely situated. This can be used to generate hydrogen for a fuel cell during a flight. Problems include high temperatures to liberate the hydrogen and even then you get incomplete liberation. Biofuel could be produced from algae in seawater or brackish water.
      Which technology would be cheaper?
      1 Metal-air fuel cells with the metals recycled from the spent metal (oxides) using renewable energy?
      2 Biofuels using made from sunlight and maybe some other renewable sources during processing?

      • Bob_Wallace

        Make sure you allow for system efficiency. And allow for capacity increases with batteries.

        Not saying that batteries will power long distance passenger planes, just trying to keep the comparison accurate.

        • Shane 2

          True. Lithium ion systems can be 90-95% chemical to electrical energy conversion efficiency. Fuel cells are more likely to be only 60% efficient in early generation system. So one does have to take that into account There is another problem with metal-air fuel cells: The fuel is oxidized, oxygen is absorbed from the air and your aircraft gets heavier over the time of the flight. Biofuel planes get lighter. However, lithium-ion is so poor in energy density that even a 4 x improvement would still leave it a long way from metal air and biofuel range capability. Biofuel generated from algae grown in seawater may be the best solution for long-range flights.

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