Monday, November 06, 2006

Flying on a Higher Plane.

We hear that plane flights are set to treble by 2030. I doubt this very much, since there will be insufficient fuel available with which to fill the tanks of so many planes, but there is no doubt that currently more of us are flying year on year. To aid this trend, a team of researchers has drawn-up a revolutionary aircraft design that reduces fuel requirements by a dramatic 35%. In addition, this aircraft is much quieter when it flies. The SAX-40 has been developed by a consortium between the University of Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a U.K. - U.S. hands across the sea venture, and is a radical aircraft design with favourable aerodynamic properties. As the researchers contend, oil may not remain at the $78 a barrel price it was a few months back (indeed it must eventually go up; but market forces might act to restrain the price for some time), but high fuel costs are likely to be a serious consideration in the future. Hence, fuel-efficiency is a major parameter in the future projections of all airline companies.
The new plane is said to have a tailless wedge-shaped fuselage with two "bat" wings. Innovation costs are attractive too, since in making the aircraft body in the form of a tube, manufacturers can easily build a family of variants of any desired size, using many of the same parts in all cases. Since the engines are to be located under the wings, they are more accessible for maintenance or full scale replacement half way through the intended 30 year lifespan of the aircraft. Indeed, there have been many improvements made in aircraft design during the past 50 years, particularly in terms of lighter materials based on composites and more efficient engines, but honing further improvements along these lines is becoming increasingly difficult, or indeed in improving the basic existing design of an aircraft.
The radical design proposed will undoubtedly auger in further developments and perhaps greater fuel efficiency will be possible through limiting aerodynamic drag effects. For aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing or Airbus, returns on investment must come quite rapidly. Boeing is already working on developing fuel-cells to power air-conditioning and electric systems in aircraft, which currently run off a plane's engines, and so draw-down their overall efficiency in terms of air-mileage. I am sceptical that this will make much difference in practice as we are back to the issue of using the fuel itself to generate hydrogen gas to run the cells. I doubt that such a device will make very much difference to overall fuel consumption, whereas an entirely new better streamlined craft certainly would.
The timescale is the truly crucial factor in getting this innovation (literally) off the ground. The fuel cell technology is not expected to be available for another 15 years, by when peak-oil will have bitten hard into the backbone of the world's energy corpus. There is always risk involved when anything "radical" is launched, and airlines already under pressure from fuel costs etc. are less likely to take them, relying instead on the tried and trusted designs that have proved themselves viable previously. However, with increasing concerns over climate change, and economic drivers including airlines having to pay full-costs on fuel and "green taxes" on emissions, searching for "holy grails" might be perceived as more worthy and worthwhile. Undoubtedly, the skies will not begin to fill with tubular aircraft any time near the immediate horizon, since when an airline buys a new plane, it must be convinced that it will continue flying for decades in order to earn its keep. Speculation is that even under the best of circumstances, the SAX-40 is unlikely to be running before 2030 - by which time we are to believe there will be three times the number of conventional aircraft in the air? Some part of the growth-edifice must give way long before then, and that is most probably the underpinning supply of aviation fuel. Meanwhile those that can will make hay while the sun shines, which I doubt will be for longer than a decade.

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