Civil aviation is one of the major contributors to climate change. With globalization gaining momentum, the last decades witnessed an exponential increase in the number of aircraft in the sky. However, unlike cars, which are beginning to embrace new electric motors, most planes continue to fly thanks to kerosene, with a small percentage powered by biofuels. One explanation is that the ratio between the weight of the batteries and the energy required makes it very difficult to design operational aircraft. Therefore, much of the effort has been focused on improving energy efficiency. Thus, between 2009 and 2020, there was an annual 2.1% increase in fuel efficiency.
Now, a Dutch engineer team intends to make a quantum leap with efficiency improving by around 20%. They have resorted to a revolutionary v-shaped design that had only precedents in the military industry. They have christened it as Flying-V. A remarkable feature is that the passengers’ cabin is placed along with the wings, and the turbines are installed above the fuselage.
Working closely with Airbus, Delft University engineers have created a scale prototype to demonstrate the technology’s viability. With a wingspan of just three meters, the initial aircraft has just made its maiden test flight, demonstrating its aerodynamic qualities. The flight more than met all expectations, both in terms of stability and energy consumption, although the engineers report that the landing was a little more abrupt than expected.
Once the flight data has been captured by the onboard sensors, the next step will be transfering it to a digital simulator that will allow the design to be fine-tuned to manufacture the final aircraft. Indeed, it promises to be much larger than the prototype, as the developers estimate that it could exceed a wingspan of sixty meters and carry more than three hundred passengers.
Other promising designs
In addition to initiatives such as Flying-V, the aviation industry is immersed in creating new designs that radically change the approach used so far. The MAVERIC, presented by Airbus at the Singapore Air Show in 2020, is a technology project that shares the Dutch prototype approach. Both share the use of turbines installed in the upper part of the fuselage. The latter, however, adopts a hang glider design. Passengers would be distributed across the width of the aircraft structure instead of lengthwise. This model is also expected to offer a 20% improvement in fuel efficiency.
Naturally, real sustainability will come from the use of new, zero-carbon propulsion technologies. An example of this is the E-Fan X prototype, which was also on show at the same fair. This is an electrically powered aircraft with which the first feasibility tests have already been carried out. It is estimated that this type of aircraft could enter into service in the next decade.
For now, it is most likely that we will see the introduction of hybrid propulsion models, combining the use of traditional fuel and electric motors for support. If the Wright brothers’ first flight was a feat of human ingenuity, the move to green aviation promises to be an equally challenging transition.