After more than 50 years of production, the final 747 takes to the skies. Boeing turned over the last 747 ever built to Atlas Air on Tuesday. Aviation enthusiast John Travolta was there and said the plane was “the most well thought out and safest aircraft ever built”. Say goodbye to a wonderful beast,” lamented the high fuel costs of transatlantic flights in jumbo jets. This reflects the growing demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft. In fact, sustainability is also on Boeing’s mind.

Air travel is a major contributor to climate change and is becoming more and more popular. Airplanes account for up to 4% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and as more people fly, the United Nations expects carbon dioxide emissions from aviation to triple by 2050. increase. This equates to about half of the carbon footprint produced by one person eating food for her one year. With a capacity of over 500 people, the Boeing 747 is his third largest plane in the sky, so the environmental costs of keeping the so-called “Queen of the Skies” flying are easy to imagine.

This isn’t the end of the 747 — existing planes may stay in the air for decades — but it’s a pivotal moment for the future of aviation. Boeing and NASA have announced the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator Project, a major partnership to build a whimsical-looking single-aisle aircraft that promises to dramatically reduce fuel consumption in commercial aircraft. The new aircraft looks like a giant glider with long, narrow wings supported by diagonal struts to reduce drag. It can transform sustainable air travel as we know it.

Unlike a car, you can’t simply bolt a battery to an airplane and make it electric. (Building an electric car is more complicated than that, but you get the point.) Airplane improvements come in small increments over decades. Usually even an order of magnitude reduction in aircraft fuel consumption makes sense. Boeing says the new truss braced wing concept innovation will result in a 30% reduction. This is exactly the kind of leap that NASA is trying to get out of its Boeing-acquired sustainable flight demonstrator project.

“If you think, or perceive, that aviation is not committed to sustainability or environmental considerations, it is a bad perception, because every generation of aircraft that comes along will do more than the ones it replaces. Because it’s 15, 20, 25 percent better,” Rich Wahls, NASA’s National Partnership Mission Integration Manager for Sustainable Flight, told Recode. “What we’re trying to do now is skip generations.”

The big idea behind the transonic truss reinforced wing concept is to update the configuration of the aircraft – the architecture of the airplane. Unlike the low-wing designs that dominate today’s commercial aircraft configurations, the new Boeing design has wings that extend to the top of the airplane’s tubular body. This reduces drag, but allows for a variety of propulsion systems, from large jet engines to exposed propellers. It’s also fast. The “transonic” part of the concept’s name refers to its ability to fly at speeds just below the speed of sound, about 600 miles per hour.

NASA loves the idea and has invested $425 million in the project under the Funded Space Act Agreement. Boeing and other partners, he also plans to invest $ 300 million. Once Boeing builds a full-fledged demonstrator aircraft, NASA says he will complete testing in the late 2020s, and if all goes well, the public can expect to see the new technology in commercial aircraft sometime in the 2030s. can be done.

A conceptual illustration of the three experimental aircraft in flight.

This is a sampler platter for a new aircraft configuration that NASA is investigating.

But if you squint, the new transonic truss reinforced wing concept looks a lot like the commercial aircraft you see on runways today. That’s not a bad thing. For one, it’s not a radical redesign, unlike the very odd-looking mixed-wing X-48 that could scare passengers. I have. Ultimately, though, according to Brent Cobley, project manager for NASA’s Sustainable Flight Demonstrator Project, the new aircraft configuration alone won’t make these next-generation planes greener. not.

“Lighter materials, better aerodynamics, better propulsion system, more direct handling,” said Cobrey.

Because again, it’s really hard to make planes more efficient. Aircraft configuration is just one piece of the puzzle. A more efficient propulsion system and cleaner jet fuel are two other moving parts that need to be combined. Further in the future, we will see designs for hybrid propulsion systems that use both jet fuel and batteries to power planes. All-electric planes are already in the skies, but it will be decades before we see large, battery-powered airliners. In the near future, hydrogen is likely to become a viable alternative to the fossil fuels currently on board aircraft. Rolls-Royce and easyJet successfully tested the world’s first hydrogen-powered jet engine just a few months ago.

These big breakthroughs are preceded by more incremental improvements. For example, just two weeks before NASA-Boeing’s announcement, Rolls-Royce showed off his new UltraFan propulsion system for the project. It claims to be 25% more efficient and able to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Biofuel derived from waste. While not a traditional fossil fuel, SAF still puts carbon into the atmosphere and is in short supply. Some commercial flights already use his SAF mixed with conventional jet fuel, and United demonstrated last year a flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. with 100% SAF. Innovations like SAF are certainly a move in the right direction. This might be called an evolutionary change, but it’s not what we need to make air travel as environmentally friendly as possible.

“The revolutionary change is to change the energy source, for example if you change to hydrogen or use hydrogen fuel cells,” said Boeing when the company was considering an early truss. Marty Bradley, a sustainable education educator and consultant who worked, explained. Braced wing concept. “It’s going to be a big jump.”

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