The future of flight

We don’t devote a ton of ink here to environmental technofixes, but there is one area where technofixes are urgently needed: airline travel. Plane flight is both hard on the environment and also really wonderful for people, so let’s hope some of the futuristic fuel-efficient designs featured in National Geographic pan out:

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Image by Georgia Tech/Courtesy NASA

The proposed planes come with whizzy features like retractable propellers and electric drive trains for runway taxiing that should cut down on fuel use, reduce noise, and allow for shorter runways.

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Image by University of Miami/Courtesy NASA

NatGeo also recently profiled Richard Branson’s new commercial space flight outfit, Virgin Galactic.

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Photograph by Stefano Paltera/AP

Branson is (to put it mildly) an interesting guy, deeply engaged on the issue of climate change while also pushing ahead with new energy-hungry business ventures. Two hour flights from New York to Australia? Yes, please. Again, let’s keep our fingers crossed for progress here, because the likely alternative is that flying gets way more expensive, and way less frequent.

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  1. Silver Donald Cameron - August 6, 2008

    I’m astonished that someone hasn’t already brought back the zeppelin, which could be an entirely sustainable way to fly. I published a newspaper column on that idea last January 13. Anyone interested can find it here: http://silverdonaldonsunday.blogspot.com/
    You’ll have to click on “Older Posts” a few times to get back to January.
    Love your newsletter.
    Silver Donald Cameron
    Halifax, NS, Canada

  2. Phoenix Woman - August 6, 2008

    Actually, Electraflyer makes an all-electric air trike and just unveiled its Electraflyer C, which is a one-person craft that has speeds comparable with similarly-sized kit aircraft and can be recharged in six hours on a normal household (110v) outlet or two hours on a 220v outlet:
    http://blog.wired.com/cars/2008/08/the-company-cla.html
    I’d slap some solar cells on the wings to provide some extra charging capacity, but that’s me.
    The battery technology isn’t quite there yet for long flights, but it’s getting better all the time.

  3. Scott - August 6, 2008

    Short-haul intercity flights could be reduced by trains. France’s TGV runs at 173mph. In contrast, Amtrak’s Acela runs at 80mph, ~2h40m from NYC to DC. Cut to 1h20m, it would be faster than air travel. The barrier is track separation and curve straightening (both require $). California has an upcoming bond measure to upgrade tracks for a ~2 hour train service b/w SF and LA. But long-haul flights? Toughie.

  4. Justin - August 6, 2008

    Scott, the CA High Speed Rail project isn’t a track improvement, its a whole new infrastructure. There will be some areas that will require multiple types of rail traffic, namely around certain stations; but the bulk of the system will be brand new, off grade track. They are even trying to make it carbon neutral by placing wind and solar generation devices along the system to power it!
    This is one of the most exciting and useful projects California has ever undertaken.

  5. Kerwin - August 6, 2008

    Rocky Mountain Institute developed ideas and guidelines for more efficient and cheaper airplanes, among many other things, some years ago, and publicized them in their book, “Winning the Oil Endgame”.
    RMI is dedicated to finding solutions to environmental problems that are not only good ideas but are also clearly profitable. Rather than preaching about what to do, they make a case for doing it in order to save money, if for no better reason. And they took that approach right from their start back in the 1980′s.
    No,I don’t work for them. I’m just very impressed by them. Check out their website if this approach sounds interesting to you.
    http://www.rmi.org/

  6. Rick Hewitt - August 6, 2008

    I’ve recently been particularly interested in a California firm called Worldwide Aeros Corporation. A gentleman named Igor Pasternak is a forward-thinking person currently developing several blimp-like vehicles designed for extremely large capacity (human or freight)the can operate with virtually zero emissions and are un-encumbered by most rules of powered flight. Hydrogen-Fuel Cell technology will be the driving force. Truly a remarkable undertaking. I found their web-site at http://www.aerosml.com. Check it out, then join our discussion at http://www.theterramadre.org. I’ve been involved with flight my entire life, and this man’s vision is absolutely the most logical yet brilliant step forward in decades.

  7. Kim - August 6, 2008

    There are times when air travel is the best possible option: emergencies when time is a critical factor for example, or crossing an ocean or continent. However, most of us who travel within the country could be better served by high speed rail. Fast, safe, efficient, but unavailable high speed rail could connect cities like Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio; or Boston, New York, and DC with low environmental impact and high traveler convenience. The answer isn’t either/or, but making the best use of existing and emerging technologies right now.

  8. bo - August 6, 2008

    there’s a lot of back to the future happening , as we migrate out of a cheap-energy economy . i think rail will become more an more important . it just takes a lot less fuel to keep a train rolling than to keep a plane flying

  9. JD Howell - August 6, 2008

    Did anyone see the film last night on NOVA (PBS), Dimming the Sun…? I did, and it basically profiles a sharp and distinct rise in temperature on the three days following the 9/11 attacks. Point they made was – no contrails from jets. The particulate and cloud crystals jets produce have been helping to dim the sun, adding global cooling. If we shut the jets off, they suppose we would see a 3degC rise, rather than 1degC rise. Has James Hansen and several other authoritative scientists aboard. So, don’t know what the future holds, but we maybe need to consider seeding clouds while we’re up there…
    As for me and mine, we’ll see you out there, on our bikes of course… JD Howell, Eugene, OR

  10. Timothy - August 10, 2008

    OK – great but a lot of this stuff is 20+ years in the future. What about now? We need a clear set of INTEGRATED policies on energy consumption tied to the environmental impact.
    A specific case in point is to regulate through a cost model the usage of the resource. Limiting Air Travel for personal or business purposes is not a good answer. We will end up with the 21st Century equivalent of Splendid Isolation.
    In the mean time there are some very practical ways that air travel can be made more responsible. To wit:
    1. Address taxation correctly. Tax aviation fairly and appropriately. One reason why the governments are so quiet on the issue of taxing aviation is that it has become a way to fill the general coffers. Fix aviation taxes and a whole lot of cities and states will be in a world of hurt. do this appropriately and the aviation taxation model will hardly change, it is already paying more than its fair share.
    2. Examine the entire environmental footprint of a trip. A trip is not an airline flight. it is point to point and (should) take into consideration the impact of the airport and the intermodal parts such as the efficiency of the airport. EG JFK should be penalized for the extensive amount of taxing that occurs each night and wastes fuel.
    3. Take into consideration the value of mass air transportation vs shorter haul alternatives such as use of personal vehicles. I am not a fan of personal aviation craft in any shape or form. Specifically we have a very dangerous situation developing with the VLJs which use a scarce resource (air ways) for the selected few. Again price the product appropriately.
    I welcome the debate – lets keep it focused and valuable – more importantly lets develop some solutions for now. Every barrel saved now will have an efficiency of 2 in the future.
    cheers
    Timothy
    PS i occasionally blog on this topic so check out some of my comments.

  11. Rick Hewitt - August 10, 2008

    My Friend Timothy, I take great pleasure from your input into the cacaphonous discussion relating to our planetary environmental issues. I must, however, interject a few comments regarding the “nothing viable for 20+ years” comment. In reality, one has only to view sites such as http://www.aerosml.com or http://www.tekkie.com to point out just two, to realize how far from the truth you have meandered. Thousands, more likely millions, of folks like us are giving “All We Got” to move forward onto the green path of global environmental health recovery. Perhaps you have been confused by all of the political, media, “correct” terminology and hyperbole that currently infects our planets’ inhabitants acceptable form of communication. But I digress– Right now we need all the input our galactial speck can muster to aid in the collective action required to “fix Mother Earth” up. Maybe we can chat some more at http://www.theterramadre.org, or anywhere else in this amazing world of communication! Your Friend, Rick Hewitt

  12. Timothy - August 10, 2008

    I think this comment from Rick does need a little clarification on my part. I was referring to the comments immediately preceding mine and to the article quoted. Many of them related to ideas that have some time to go in the future before becoming both viable and widely deployed to make a dent in the carbon footprint of aviation. Particularly in regard to the Nat Geo article – much of that material is even further in the future. So I don’t think I strayed too far from the facts presented. Boeing and Airbus (the incumbent players in aircraft manufacturing) are at least 15 years away from deploying significant numbers of a new aircraft to replace the current best selling 737 and A320 product lines that transport the majority of people via air. As a point of reference the Airbus A320 series aircraft makes up over 54% of the movements at London Heathrow.
    I hope that it is clear that I am focused on solving near term behaviors rather than longer term solutions. Where I do agree with Rick is that there is much that can be done now and I too believe that there are many people of like minds (me included) who are doing more than a fair share to reduce the carbon footprint. We will be better users in the future. By then we will have no choice. Now we have some choices and harder decisions need to be made. Therefore I hope that we can address some near term solutions to reduce the footprint and the profligate use of non-renewable energy resources. Of that I am sure we can agree. (Michael Crighton exempted!)
    Thanks
    Timothy