EcoDemonstrator: Airlines Start Rethinking Efficiency

by Katie Valentine

Aviation accounts for 13 percent of transportation carbon dioxide emissions globally. By 2050, the IPCC projects that aviation will account for 5 percent of global warming. As technologies improve, Airplanes are getting more efficient. But some of those efficiency improvements are being cancelled out by increasing aviation demand, particularly in developing countries.

So what to do? Some companies rethinking the airplane in order to realize far greater efficiency. Boeing is rolling out a new project, called the EcoDemonstrator, that is serving as a test bed for technologies that can dramatically reduce fuel consumption:

This next generation Boeing 737-800 came to D.C. last week after 45 days of flight testing in Glasgow, Montana. These tests allowed Boeing engineers to gather data on how the energy-saving additions and modifications performed in flight – in place of seats, the cabin of the plane was filled with racks of computers and monitoring equipment.

The technologies being tested on the ecoDemonstrator include:

  • Adaptive wing edges that change to accommodate different phases of flight, reducing fuel consumption by increasing aerodynamics
  • Variable area fan nozzles that adjust to optimize airflow during takeoff and landing, reducing takeoff noise and fuel consumption
  • A regenerative hydrogen fuel cell that provides an additional source of power and stores energy when electricity demand is low
  • iPad-like devices on the flight deck that provide satellite weather reports and find the most fuel-efficient ways to avoid weather and other flight constraints
  • Carpet made from recycled materials that can be replaced tile by tile as it is worn, instead of replacing the entire carpet

The 737-800 is the first plane in the multi-year ecoDemonstrator program developed by Boeing, American Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise (CLEEN) program in July 2011. The program will test different planes with fuel-saving and noise-reducing technologies in 2013, 2014 and possibly 2015. After this year’s testing is done, the new technologies will be removed and the plane will be returned to American Airlines.

Hopefully, though, the technology tested on the ecoDemonstrator will pave the way for more fuel-efficient aircraft in the future – aviation carbon dioxide emissions are set to quadruple by 2050 if new policies or technologies aren’t put in place to drastically cut fuel use.

Katie Valentie is a graduate of the University of Georgia. She currently interns on the international climate policy team at the Center for American Progress.

9 Responses to EcoDemonstrator: Airlines Start Rethinking Efficiency

  1. Paul Klinkman says:

    Air friction is proportional to the fourth power of velocity. Slowing the plane down just a bit wins a great deal of fuel economy. The problem is in valuing wealthy people’s time sitting down and in valuing employees’ time to the company. Faster and faster planes save time. That was the logic behind the old SST.

    We have an economic value on people’s minutes but we don’t have an economic value on mass extinctions in our environment.

    If the airlines really cared about people’s minutes they’d cut the lines at security and they’d fly on time.

  2. A biofuel supply basis for aircraft would help as well. Research for new flight energy sources should probably be a priority.

  3. These measures are neat, if you get into nerd mode and forget how dire and urgent the carbon problem is. They’re nibbling at the edges, at best.

    The days of cheap, commoditized air travel have to end. Traveling from coast to coast should be as expensive and rare as it was before the invention of the jetliner, unless these planes can suddenly be rendered 90% more efficient.

    There is no more unnatural act than getting into a 100-ton metal tube for five hours and being gingerly deposited on the opposite coast. We’ve come to regard it not as normal, but as a birthright. Birthright-think is inherently destructive. It is an explicit abandonment of perspective.

  4. catman306 says:

    Solar powered blimps wouldn’t be as fast as jets, but could transport many travelers on middle to short flights without carbon pollution.

  5. Tom Bennion says:

    “These measures are neat, if you get into nerd mode and forget how dire and urgent the carbon problem is. They’re nibbling at the edges, at best.”

    Agreed. Stories like this should be required to also spell out the expected efficiency gains in terms of EROEI, otherwise they are just greenwash.

    In a recent British survey people only 18% supported unrestricted flying “even if it harms the environment”

    Time to work on attitude change, not aerodynamics.

  6. dhogaza says:

    “There is no more unnatural act than getting into a 100-ton metal tube for five hours and being gingerly deposited on the opposite coast.”

    that’s why they’re switching to composites!

    Snark aside, air traffic isn’t going away, all wishing aside. Nibbling at the edges of the problem is better than doing nothing.

    Boeing’s 787 is 70% more fuel efficient than its original 707. That’s partly due to the lighter composite construction, partly due to improvements in engine design (modern high-bypass jet engines are much more efficient than older jet engines).

    Another big improvement in efficiency will come when the aircraft control system is modernized so that point-to-point routing can become the norm.

  7. Ken Barrows says:

    Nibbling at the edges is NOT better than doing nothing. What’s better is defining the problem and coming up with a solution. If the problem is as dire as pointed out by comments on this website, not addressing it head on compounds said problem.

    Say what the problem is in detail, propose a solution, and if the humans reject it you can say you did your best.

  8. What to see what aviation efficiency will do? Take a look at figure 2 on page 32 of the aviation industry’s own ICAO 2010 Environmental Report. The most aggressive approach to efficiency will see aviation GHG TRIPLE by 2040. This super aggressive approach to efficiency is beyond what the airline industry is recommending they attempt. So TRIPLING GHG is looking like best case scenario without demand reduction.

  9. What to know what it will really take to get aviation emissions to fall?

    Again, you can find this in the aviation industry’s own ICAO 2010 Environmental Report. It contains a report by the UK government on page 47 called “Options for Reducing Emissions to 2050″.

    The UK gov evaluated what it would take to just keep UK aviation emissions at 2005 levels by 2050. Not falling emissions…just flatlined.

    They said it can only be done if demand growth is dramatically curtailed. The aviation industry refuses to even consider demand reduction strategies.

    By the way, UK aviation CO2 is already 6.5% of UK total emissions. If you include other GHG forcings it approaches 9%.

    Table 2 on page A4 if ICAO report shows that two thirds of all flying emissions come from just a “dirty dozen” nations. This isn’t a global issue folks. That is why studying the UK (#4 globally) report is so important.

    And what happens if big demand reduction manages to hold the UK aviation emissions flat until 2050? It turns out that UK aviation would then be demanding 25% of UK CO2 budget. Every other sector in UK would need to slash CO2 by 90% instead of 80% by 2050 to make up for that. If aviation emissions are allowed to double in UK by 2050 they will require 50% of national CO2 budget.

    Bottom line: aviation emissions will rise rapidly until policies that significantly reduce demand growth are implemented. Any other spin is denial.