Come Fly (Guilt Free) with Me

With increasing pressure on airline companies to cut carbon emissions, gives us an exciting insight into the developments in aviation which could lead to greener travel

Solar Impulse, a solar powered electric plane, on a test flight in the US before its trip around the world in 2013.

Solar Impulse, a solar powered electric plane, on a test flight in the US before its trip around the world in 2013.

Over the course of the last decade, there have been a number of excting developments in the aviation industry.
A great deal of research has been invested in replacing kerosene as the main fuel for aviation; the hope being of course, that this will enable us to continue to jet off to exotic locations regardless of the world’s dwindling fossil fuel supplies. Attempts have also been made to facilitate a more sustainable means of producing the aircraft themselves. Great news then, for plane and holiday lovers alike, that both these areas of research have recently come to fruition.

Only last week it was announced that researchers from IBM’s Almaden Research Centre had found a way to make a durable thermoset plastic in a recyclable form. What this means is that, unlike common plastics which can be fragile and brittle, those produced here by Dr Jeanette Garcia can be made both strong and flexible. Similar materials are currently used both in the manufacture of cars and aeroplanes, however, until now it has not been possible to produce these plastics in a recyclable form. Dr James Hendrick, the man in charge of the research, states that “the ability to rework saves a tremendous amount of money and mitigates waste.” Clearly, in applications such as these the potential for waste reduction is huge.

Naturally, as with all great discoveries, the discovery of these plastics came about by complete accident. In an experiment intended to involve three components, Dr Garcia fortuitously managed to omit one of them. Upon investigation of the resulting product she found she had stumbled upon an elegant solution to a problem that has existed for many years. As the same plastics can also be made into “self-healing gels”, a whole host of applications could be available outside of the transport industry such as cosmetics, paints and drug capsules to name a few.

Meanwhile, exciting developments have also been made in the pursuit of alternative fuels. The end of April saw a light aircraft take to the skies above Bordeaux, powered purely by electricity. Although in this case the two 65kg lithium battery packs used were only required to power a small two-seater plane, made primarily of lightweight carbon fibre, the same technology could be used in the development of hybrid airliners.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with battery power, the all electric aircraft was limited to a flight time of one hour. An obvious, albeit somewhat challenging solution, would be to use photovoltaic solar cells; this happens to be the idea behind the Solar Impulse 2, a project recently unveiled by a Swiss engineering team. Rather than a short flight over Bordeaux, the Swiss team intend to perform a complete round the world trip courtesy of some 17,248 solar cells.

There are, however, a number of drawbacks with this idea, chief among which is a lack of power. In spite of having a wingspan larger than that of a Boeing 747, covered in solar cells; Solar Impulse 2 cannot yet afford to carry passengers for fear of introducing too much weight. To the same end, the pilot’s seat doubles up as a toilet and the autopilot functions are sparse at best. As a result, in order to complete its voyage, a single pilot will be required to fly the aircraft across the entirety of the Atlantic Ocean over the course of a week, without a break.

Clearly, there is a long way to go before any of these developments will be seen on your average BA flight, but they do offer a glimpse into the exciting future of aviation.