GreenTech: Sustainable Aviation

According to official numbers, the airline industry contributes about 2.5% of global carbon emissions. In less official settings, there’s chatter that it’s a little more than that. The reasons are complex… but they mostly deal with the formulas used to calculate contributions, as well as considerations about the specific metrics being measured. While all that may be debatable, what isn’t debatable is that there’s no sector that sustainability isn’t touching, aviation is no exception.

Scientists and researchers are predicting that, by the year 2030, commercial aviation as we know it will begin to transform. And it’s not just biofuels, we’re talking about entirely new designs, materials, and infrastructure. Helping us usher in these changes will be partnerships like that between aviation giants Boeing and NASA. The two have recently teamed up on a sustainable plane design featuring a new wing that reduces fuel consumption called the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing concept.

The maiden flight is expected in 2028, and success will look like reduced fuel consumption and emissions of up to 30% compared to current sustainable aviation efforts. It’s okay to go ahead and get your hopes up, because the only thing keeping this from happening sooner has been material and construction constraints. Those are dissolving quickly. The wing design won’t be the only thing sustainable… there’s room to play, since the project simply proves technologies.

Boeing and NASA are just two nodes in an emerging web of sustainable aviation… earlier this month, aviation minds met at the Sustainable Skies World Summit held at the Farnborough International Exhibition and Conference Centre. The event took place with the blessings of names like Airbus, CFM, Catapault, ADS Group, and more, and an updated Net Zero Carbon roadmap was published addressing sustainable commercial aviation changes.

Not just fuels and aircraft are changing… we’re also seeing matching changes to infrastructure. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced the selection of new, sustainable designs for air traffic control towers at municipal and smaller airports. The design, courtesy of New York’s Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), will feature important elements of sustainability. These new 60-to-119-foot monster towers will replace those currently in operation outside their lifecycle.

Thanks to funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law, sustainability will be baked into these new towers, and the changes will be substantial… changes like thermal efficiency, high-recycled steel and metal, all-electric building systems, materials free of known toxic chemicals, ground-sourced temperature control, and renewable mass timber. The changes should also ease flight frustrations, as they’ll empower airports to handle more traffic, more efficiently, more affordably.

There are a few planes already around that are proudly peacocking their flashy, new sustainable capabilities as exciting glimpses into future possibilities in the space. Airbus, for instance, has high hopes. They want to make the world’s first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft within the next decade and have a concept plane called the blended-wing MAVERIC. This high-tech machine could eventually fly about 2,500 nautical miles with up to 200 souls aboard.

What’s cool about this plane are wings that merge with the main body to create a wide fuselage for storing liquid hydrogen tanks beneath those wings. Hybrid-hydrogen turbofan engines would provide thrust… it sounds amazing. If hydrogen isn’t your cup of tea, there’s also an all-electric passenger aircraft that flew a test flight last year. Launched by Eviation Aircraft, the nine-passenger jet flew for eight minutes at 3,500 feet. They want certification in 2025, and deliveries to customers by 2027.

But wait… there’s more. A part of overall sustainability efforts isn’t just in the making of the planes and infrastructure, it’s also in what we do with planes after they are retired. Recycling is looking attractive, and it may end up happening on a large scale. Case and point: Airbus, Tarmac Aerosave, and the City of Chengdu, are constructing an aircraft “lifecycle” services center in China to do just that… how long until that’s normal everywhere? Come back next week, we’ll have more from the green tech space.