Small Hops to Eco-Friendlier Skies

CleanEra flying saucer plane



This week, five states petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curb greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft. With the holidays here and everyone rushing off to airports, is it too much to hope that federal prodding might encourage greener air travel?

Currently there are no limits on aviation emissions, so the EPA would face an uphill battle if they choose take up the challenge. But the timing would be right: The petitioners are claiming that the EPA is duty-bound to set emissions standards for aircraft following the controversial Supreme Court ruling last April, which held that greenhouse gases are pollutants and therefore part of the Clean Air Act. Not to mention the European Parliament took preliminary steps last month towards setting CO2 emission limits for airlines flying to and from Europe.

In 2005, aircraft contributed 3 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and accounted for 12 percent of the transportation sector’s emissions. The Federal Aviation Administration expects air traffic to rise about 60 percent by 2025, so expect those figures to get worse. To handle that kind of growth, and shrink its carbon footprint, the aviation industry will need to turn to some big improvements in technology.

The most basic part is better air traffic management: implementing GPS so that aircraft spend little to no time idling on runways and circling airports. Air traffic control still relies on 50-year old technology that requires planes to fly on slower, more indirect routes to keep large distances between planes.

Fair enough, but how exciting is that? Wouldn’t we rather see nifty new aircraft that can bounce from airport to airport with barely a burp of carbon? This year, Europe’s easyJet unveiled plans for its EcoJet that, using existing technology, would cut per-passenger emissions in half and could be ready by 2015. 

For more outlandish takes on the future of flight, here are some funky new flying machines that engineers hope will herald a new era of energy efficiency. Bertrand Piccard’s Solar Impulse is one to watch.  Last month, this Swiss team released blueprints for a solar airplane that it expects to fly in 2010. Construction of a prototype, including the preparation of its space-grade solar cells, is already under way. (This is the same guy who flew around the world in a hot-air balloon.)

A group at Delft University of Technology, in The Netherlands, has taken an even more radical approach and is abandoning the tube-plus-wing look of conventional planes. The CleanEra project is exploring something that, for now, looks like a flying saucer.

But they haven’t settled on just how they’re going to power its flight (biodiesel? Propellers?), so keep this as a back-up plan in case that EcoJet doesn’t work out. You’ll sooner find yourself strapped into one of these planes, designed by a MIT-Cambridge University joint effort: the Silent Aircraft Initiative’s SAX-40. On the surface it looks a lot like some designs coming out of Boeing, so maybe there’s a future for this type of aircraft. Not only will the SAX-40 be barely audible outside of the immediate vicinity of airports, it is also being designed to get better per-passenger mileage than a Toyota Prius carrying two people.

Government limits to emissions could be the starting point from which dreams of weirder planes can step into reality, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.




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Issue 25

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