Looking at the con-trails that aircraft leave in the sky, what kid hasn’t said something about the airplane’s “smoke?” While those trails are more water vapor condensed around particles than they are smoke, there’s no denying that aviation has a huge carbon footprint – from aircraft and ground equipment emissions to de-ice and mechanical fluids to passenger trash.
According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, ”Aviation and marine transportation combined are responsible for approximately 5 percent of total GHG emissions in the United States and 3 percent globally and are among the fastest growing modes in the transportation sector. Under business-as-usual forecasts, CO2 emissions from global aviation are estimated to grow 3.1 percent per year over the next 40 years, resulting in a 300 percent increase in emissions by 2050. … Controlling the growth in aviation and marine transportation GHG emissions will be an important part of reducing emissions from the transportation sector.” The concern is less about aircraft emissions today and more about their rapid growth and exponential increases. Reducing this footprint is going to take a concerted effort from several sectors including fuel research, aircraft design and air traffic control.
The aviation industry is already set to benefit from alternative fuel research. AZoCleantech reported on 25 March 2010 that “According to the projections in the “Camelina Aviation Biofuels Market Opportunity and Renewable Energy Strategy Report,” released by Biomass Advisors’ biofuels market researchers, the production of Camelina biofuel is set to reach one billion gallons by the year 2025.” While this certainly won’t supply all of the fuel needed by the aviation industry, it won’t have to. As we discussed previously, DARPA has developed a process to produce fuel from algae at the same cost as fossil fuels, with production to begin as early as 2013. The new fuel sources, in theory, would be carbon neutral since the CO2 emitted by the aircraft would be used again by the fuel-producing organisms. In addition to using more eco-friendly fuels, the industry is designing more efficient aircraft.
Jets used by airlines have more composite material in their bodies than ever before, although aluminum is still the major component in airliner construction. Increasing the composite percentage from 2% in the 1950s Boeing 707 to 10% in the 2000s Boeing 777 has lightened the aircraft making them more fuel efficient. The Hawker 4000 with its all carbon composite construction fuselage really lightens the load. Fuel efficiency is dramatically increased using these new construction materials and structural changes like winglets, which increase efficiency by decreasing drag.
This week, the United States Senate passed a measure to reauthorize the FAA and to pursue implementation of the NextGen air traffic control system. There are still several details to be worked out with the system and the electronics required to make it work; but, once in use, it will allow aircraft to fly more direct routes between origin and destination, allowing for more efficient use of aircraft and fuel.
Will flying ever be completely eco-friendly? I don’t think so, or, at least, I can’t really envision it. On the other hand, how many children of the 50s, 60s and 70s ever really believed that we could have a telephone that would fit in our pockets, play all of our music, remind us of our appointments and connect us to the world? Maxwell Smart had the best and his was just a shoe!