Monday, February 4, 2008

Clean Aviation?: news from Airbus, Boeing, and DARPA

Aviation is responsible for only a small percentage of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but it is a fast growing sector and represents a large part of the carbon footprint of frequent travelers like myself. Some also think that the effects may be larger due to the high altitude at which emissions are released. It has also been thought that GHG from aviation is a hard nut to crack because we lack suitable alternative fuels, but three recent stories give hope.

The first story concerns Airbus, which flew an A380 from Bristol to Toulouse with just one of its four engines running on GTL. GTL stands for “gas to liquid” and is a synthetic fuel made from natural gas. The GHG benefit compared with conventional jet fuel (kerosene) is not great, but the flight is meant to be a step towards being able to use second-generation biofuels. Shell and Rolls Royce are working with Airbus, and Qatar Airways could be the first airline to use the fuel on commercial flights.

Meanwhile Virgin Atlantic, working with Boeing and GE, plans to fly from London to Amsterdam using biofuel in all four engines, with a similar flight being planned by Air New Zealand.

But the most interesting news I have seen lately was something I heard at a conference a week or so ago. Apparently the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has asked aerospace companies to bid on a new aerial surveillance project called VULTURE (for Very-high altitude, Ultra-endurance, Loitering Theater Unmanned Reconnaissance Element). A bidders meeting is scheduled for June 7th. The interesting thing is that it needs to be able to carry a 1000-lound payload and to stay up for five years! At first I was disinclined to believe it, so a Googled and found this:

It is supposed that VULTURE will have to be solar powered, though that is not a requirement. I have not seen anything on how long the project might take, and of course any application to commercial aircraft would be much further away, but there is plenty of sun up there above the clouds and there is enormous scope for improvement in photovoltaic efficiency.

1 comment:

Ros said...

At the moment, we can only reduce our personal reduce carbon footprints from aviation by cutting the amount of flying we do. Perhaps we need to use VOIP, webcams and social sites like FaceBook more and travel less?
Last year I used the train to visit friends in France. Now I don't have a car in which to drive to the airport where the cheap flights go from, it wasn't much more expensive than a cheap flight would have been.
But I usually have a long-haul flight once a year for a holiday - always to see wildlife. If people don't visit reservces in developing countries, the reserves will close and we'll lose species, but flying there damages the whole world!