More sustainable commercial flying may soon become a reality.
Sustainable flying has become a priority for both the aviation industry and policymakers, but the improvements have been mostly piecemeal during the past decade. However, a public-private partnership between NASA and Boeing could now help the push to become “greener” — and a sleek new “truss-winged” aircraft design is at the center of it all.
As for the partnership, NASA will work with Boeing to develop and test a single-aisle prototype jet that it hopes will significantly reduce emissions. NASA and Boeing suggested the new aircraft could be flying passengers at some point in the 2030s, though splashy futuristic design concepts have a mixed record when it comes to hitting timelines — if they ever fly at all.
Still, the project aims to improve the environmental impact of single-aisle airliners like the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320 family, which are the workhorses of airlines around the globe. Consequently, their usage accounts for nearly half of the worldwide aviation emissions.
“If we are successful, we may see these technologies in planes that the public takes to the skies in the 2030s,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
The design NASA and Boeing are testing is called a “Transonic Truss-Braced Wing” demonstrator aircraft, which NASA believes can reduce emissions and fuel consumption by around 30%.
The Transonic Truss-Braced Wing design gives an aircraft extra-long, thin wings stabilized by diagonal struts and higher aspect ratios.
The design is more sustainable than a traditional aircraft because the wing creates less drag for the plane; this means the aircraft will burn less fuel, according to NASA.
Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief engineer, said it could be a major milestone for sustainable flying.
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“It represents an opportunity to design, build and fly a full-scale experimental plane, while solving novel technical problems,” Hyslop said.
Over the next seven years, NASA said it will invest $425 million in the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project, while Boeing and other industry partners will fund the remainder of the project. It’s estimated to cost a total of $725 million. NASA added it will also contribute its facilities and expertise to the initiative.
NASA said its Boeing partnership to develop a more sustainable aircraft will also allow the U.S. to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — a policy goal for President Joe Biden’s administration.
The NASA-Boeing partnership comes as the airline industry is forced to confront its sustainability practices due to the looming threat of climate change. Air travel accounts for approximately 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions, but some scientists believe it plays a far larger role in climate change.
While airlines like JetBlue, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have pledged to work toward net-zero emissions, the road to sustainable aviation for the airline industry hasn’t been easy.
Airlines have toyed with using sustainable aviation fuel — known as SAF — made from materials such as used cooking oil and other biomass. SAFs emit less carbon dioxide than traditional jet fuel. Still, given their limited production and the fact that it’s expensive, airlines have been slow to fully integrate SAFs into their flights. Currently, airlines blend small amounts of SAFs into their jet fuel for select flights.
Given the challenges of achieving sustainable aviation, the NASA-Boeing development of these greener airliners could be a game changer for the airline industry.
“It’s our goal that NASA’s partnership with Boeing to produce and test a full-scale demonstrator will help lead to future commercial airliners that are more fuel efficient with benefits to the environment, the commercial aviation industry, and to passengers worldwide,” Nelson said.
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