NASA Technologies Could Save Airlines Billions, Cut Pollution 75%

NASA ERA project

by | Jan 14, 2016

NASA ERA projectDonald Trump’s plane violating UK carbon emissions rules may have snagged the bulk of the aviation-emissions headlines last week, but an announcement by NASA may prove to be even bigger than the presidential hopeful’s ego.

NASA says US airlines could save more than $250 billion, cut airline fuel in half and air pollution by 75 percent with the help of new technologies developed under the agency’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project.

“If these technologies start finding their way into the airline fleet, our computer models show the economic impact could amount to $255 billion in operational savings between 2025 and 2050,” says Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics research.

Between 2009 and 2015, NASA researchers focused on eight major integrated technology demonstrations in three categories: airframe technology, propulsion technology and vehicle systems integration. Over the course of the six years NASA invested more than $400 million in the project, with industry partners investing an addition $250 million in-kind resources.

The eight technology demonstrations are:

  • Tiny embedded nozzles blowing air over the surface of an airplane’s vertical tail fin showed that future aircraft could safely be designed with smaller tails, reducing weight and drag. This technology was tested using Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator 757 flying laboratory. Also flown was a test of surface coatings designed to minimize drag caused by bug residue building up on the wing’s leading edge.
  • NASA developed a new process for stitching together large sections of lightweight composite materials to create damage-tolerant structures that could be used in building uniquely shaped future aircraft that weighed as much as 20 percent less than a similar all-metal aircraft.
  • Teaming with the Air Force Research Laboratory and FlexSys, NASA successfully tested a radical new morphing wing technology that allows an aircraft to seamlessly extend its flaps, leaving no drag-inducing, noise-enhancing gaps for air to flow through. FlexSys and Aviation Partners of Seattle already have announced plans to commercialize this technology.
  • NASA worked with General Electric to refine the design of the compressor stage of a turbine engine to improve its aerodynamic efficiency and, after testing, realized that future engines employing this technology could save 2.5 percent in fuel burn.
  • The agency worked with Pratt & Whitney on the company’s geared turbofan jet engine to mature an advanced fan design to improve propulsion efficiency and reduce noise. If introduced on the next-generation engine, the technology could reduce fuel burn by 15 percent and significantly reduce noise.
  • NASA also worked with Pratt & Whitney on an improved design for a jet engine combustor, the chamber in which fuel is burned, in an attempt to reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides produced. While the goal was to reduce generated pollution by 75 percent, tests of the new design showed reductions closer to 80 percent.
  • New design tools were developed to aid engineers in reducing noise from deployed wing flaps and landing gear during takeoffs and landings. Information from a successful wind-tunnel campaign, combined with baseline flight tests, were joined together for the first time to create computer-based simulations that could help mature future designs.
  • Significant studies were performed on a hybrid wing body concept in which the wings join the fuselage in a continuous, seamless line and the jet engines are mounted on top of the airplane in the rear. Research included wind-tunnel runs to test how well the aircraft would operate at low speeds and to find the optimal engine placement, while also minimizing fuel burn and reducing noise.

US airlines “continue to support public-private partnerships, such as NASA’s Environmental Responsible Aviation (ERA) program, that promote critical research and development into technologies to further reduce fuel burn, emissions and aircraft noise,” Airlines for America’s Vaughn Jennings told Environmental Leader, adding that the aviation industry organization and its members also support a similar program, the FAA’s Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions & Noise (CLEEN) program.

While saving money and reducing emissions sound like no brainers, what is the likelihood that these technologies will make it to market?

Lux Research’s Anthony Vicari, an analyst with the firm’s Advanced Materials team, says he questions the timelines.

“NASA has now completed initial testing and demonstrations of these technologies in the lab. This corresponds to a technology readiness level (TRL) of around 5 to 7,” Vicari says.

Typically, and according to NASA’s own figures, it takes about a decade to bring a new technology from TRL 5 to TRL 9, which means it’s ready for deployment, Vicari says. It takes about five years to go from TRL 7 to TRL 9. “Once a technology reaches TRL 9, a company must incorporate it into its next generation products, which may come out several years later,” he says. “As a result, we should not expect to see any of these technologies in use commercially until 2020-2025.”

Still, many of the new technologies show promise, Vicari says. “[They] seem very plausible candidates for future commercialization, since most are based on part design changes rather than, for example, new materials. It is important to note that in general NASA was not conducting this research on its own, but was working directly with existing commercial aerospace companies like Boeing, Pratt and Whitney, and GE, which significantly increases the likelihood of future commercialization.”

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