“I want to get rid of the image of a cylindrical body with wings,” said Etnel Straatsma of Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands.
With those words comes the promise of a greener, more UFOy flying future. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… the Ecosaucer!
The plane of the future, in Straatsma’s vision, might be as wild as a flying saucer. She and other engineers are toying with lighter materials and some are pondering ideas as radical as returning to propeller-driven planes as an eco-friendly alternative to passenger jets.
Straatsma heads the recently-formed CleanEra project, which aims to design an “ultra-eco-friendly plane” that releases 50 percent less carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than current airliners. The project’s “greenliner”—depicted in design illustrations as a flying saucer—would also reduce other pollutants and noise, in line with recommendations from the European Aerospace Commission, ACARE.
The challenge is that modern airplanes are already close to maximally optimized, said Alexander de Haan, also from Delft but not involved with CleanEra. He has examined various design modifications and found that they could reduce carbon emissions and noise levels by, at most, 10 to 15 percent.
Could an ecosaucer be the answer to Joel’s question “Can Air Travel Ever Be Green?“. The answer to that is, of course, yes- with a lot of work. Even making the assumption that it could be a long time before we see anything crazy like the ecosaucer, we can still attack the root of the problem- the jet fuel. Solve the fuel question and you’ve got the whole thing hooked. If you can green up the fuel it won’t be so important to find game-changing designs for the planes. If you can get the fuel to be green then you can just keep tinkering away at the incremental engineering improvements to squeeze more out of your margin. Richard Branson is throwing some money at the problem. He’d like to see Virgin Airlines be the leader in turning the industry around and is focusing his R&D lens on cellulosic ethanol technology in partnership with Boeing and New Zealand Airlines.
If we don’t do something, the rising costs of jet fuel and growing awareness of the environmental impact of our globetrotting lifestyles are going to bring up a lot more voices calling for us to just stop flying. Eventually, as oil creeps up by and past $100/gallon, flying will be something only the richers can afford. I still haven’t been to Amsterdam, so let’s get our asses in gear and figure this thing out!