Fuelling the Future. An Aviation Blog by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Thursday, January 12, 2012

When oil wreaked devastation in the Gulf of Mexico, news reports continued to splash images of doused wildlife and shattered livelihoods across our screens. Inevitably, our world's dependence upon the black fluid was raised and environmentally friendlier options were bounced about by the media and governments alike. The sustainability of the world's reliance on oil was subsequently called into question for reasons ranging from its environmental impact to its ultimately finite supplies.

Aviation stands in the middle of this intersection with both arguments bearing down at a pace seemingly far greater than solutions can be found. However, the industry is far from a bystander as manufacturers seek answers to the inevitable issues relating to the blood supply of aviation. In the short to medium term making every drop count is crucial, while in the longer term an alternative fuel source is the real Nirvana.

Airlines continue to eke out efficiency at every opportunity, from reducing APU burns on turn-around to tailored flight planning at the optimum flight level and on the optimum route. But beyond this, boundaries are being pushed and ideas from outside the square are rapidly entering the realms of feasibility. Ideas such as the 'Scramjet', where the act of jet combustion takes place utilising supersonic airflow throughout the engine. Normally this airflow needs to be decelerated to subsonic speeds and consequently limits the speed of the aircraft it is powering. The Boeing X-51A Wave Rider scramjet has already set a new record for sustained flight at Mach 5. While the maximum speed was only held for a matter of minutes, the flight represents a major stepping stone towards an engine that could potentially see flight at speeds approaching orbital velocity.

At the other end of the speed spectrum and down in the more immediate atmosphere, solar power also notched up a landmark in the wake of the scramjet tearing up the sky. Flying out of Switzerland, the manned 'Solar Impulse' aircraft remained aloft for 26 hours, powered by its 12,000 solar cells and the batteries those cells had charged. The most obvious aspect of a flight lasting longer than a day is that this 'sun-powered' flight, flew by night! Another step forward for a project with its sights set on a flight around the globe, energised by nature alone.

Beyond conceptual craft, the airlines are faced with the immediate problems of rising oil prices and a role to play in terms of environmental responsibility. Airlines across the world from Air New Zealand to Virgin Atlantic have pioneered tests with biofuel blended fuel on wide-bodied Boeing 747s in the search for a new, friendlier fuel source. Additionally, manufacturers are seeking lighter, more fuel efficient engines, such as the CFM LEAP-X and Pratt & Whitney's 1000G, to attach to existing airframe designs to increase the fuel efficiency of conventional jet transport aeroplanes.

Taking the project even further, Airbus have released their New Engine Option (NEO) program and this involves more than merely bolting on new engines to an A320 airframe. Open rotor engines that remind us of the unducted fans of the 80s and ultra-high bypass engines are set to not merely change the powerplant, but the overall look of the aircraft.

And it is not only the 'big boys' pursuing these options. The diesel engine is knocking on the door to re-emerge as a general aviation engine and halve fuel flows in the process. Diamond Aircraft continue to go down the diesel road that they started with their Thielert engined aircraft. After teething problems, they are now back on track with the Austro AE300 engine on their new twin-engined DA42NG.

In fact at one Berlin Airshow, EADS demonstrated a DA42 with Austro engines modified to use an algae-based biofuel. At the same airshow, EADS took the diesel journey a step further down a slightly different road. At the recent Berlin Airshow they also unveiled a hybrid diesel-electric helicopter concept; low on both fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

All of these developments are looking at how aviation can either maximise its use of existing fuel sources or successfully replace them with green alternatives. Certainly, the conversion of a featherweight solar-powered aircraft into a commercially viable machine is still a way off, but the rate of progress is truly accelerating. In fact, virtually of all of the aforementioned projects have registered major milestones in recent times.

They are long term projects conceived in times past that are not only progressing at a tremendous rate, but are spawning new projects and further stretching the boundaries of human imagination. It is this same 'reach for the sky' attitude that has preceded all the great periods of aviation evolution. The first powered flights saw pioneering individuals push one another to develop better flying contraptions while enemies sought to fly higher, farther and faster in times of war to gain air superiority. Today, manufacturers are involved in a battle of a different kind and whilst not violent, the challenge is no less fierce.

At stake is the future of man's presence in the sky. To remain aloft, a more efficient way must be found to move people and parcels across the oceans. Oil resources are not without limit and the greater community is calling for all commercial operations to be responsible for the environment we share. To this end, the aviation industry faces its next big challenge and on recent developments, it looks like it will once again find the answers.

Whether global travel involves skipping along the atmosphere at Mach 24 or crossing oceans by virtue of igniting algae, only time will tell. However, it is undeniable that aviation is continuing to set its sights on the future while endeavouring to improve the methods on hand in the interim. It is an industry in the cross-hairs of inevitability, but is also an industry founded upon the purest principles of innovation and imagination. One cannot help but think that it is these very qualities that will ultimately find a means of fuelling the future.

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