NASA cleantech offers emissions windfall for aviation industry

NASA has claimed that America's aviation industry could reduce pollutant emissions by 75% - saving $250bn in the process - by incorporating refined green technologies that the Agency has developed over the past six years.

The government agency has charged aeronautics researchers to develop and test an array of green technologies since 2009. The researchers have since claimed that the use of these projects could cut airline fuel use by 50%, with some innovations reducing emissions by as much as 80%.

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

Green innovations

As part of NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project, aeroplanes were tested with new lightweight materials in order to decrease weight and fuel use – a concept now being commercialised by FlexSys and Aviation Partners of Seattle. NASA has also collaborated with General Electric to refine turbine engines saving an extra 2.5% of fuel burn.

The ERA has received more than $650m through investment both from NASA and industry partners including American aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. This particular collaboration saw improvements to geared turbofan jet engines that could reduce fuel burn by 15% and emissions by 80%.

The ERA project was completed late last year and used the previous six years to explore and document the feasibility, benefits and technical risks that innovative technologies would have in reducing the aviation sector’s impact on the environment.

“It was challenging because we had a fixed window, a fixed budget, and all eight demonstrations needed to finish at the same time,” said Fayette Collier, ERA project manager. “We then had to synthesise all the results and complete our analysis so we could tell the world what the impact would be. We really did quite well.”

Aviation emissions

The announcement comes as the aviation industry faces up to a tough emissions-reduction challenge. Despite 28 chief executives from leading airlines and associations urging governments to commit to new environmental strategies across the sector, the recent global climate agreement signed in Paris gave no mention of the sector.

There are mooted talks from airlines and industry bodies to come up with an independent climate target, but recent figures from the International Council on Clean Transportation have already revealed that aeroplane efficiency is more than a decade behind schedule.

A seperate report from the New Climate Economy also revealed that global carbon emissions from the world’s aviation and maritime sectors could rise 250% by 2050 without such tangible targets from governments to reduce carbon rates.

No-fly zone

While NASA bankrolls these breakthroughs in the US aviation sector, here in the UK, British Airways has lamented a lack of Government support for its reason to abandon a £340m plan to generate 16m gallons of jet fuel from London’s rubbish annually.

According the Guardian today (6 January), the plan – which would have equated to removing 15,000 cars from the road – was derailed due to a lack of policy engagement and reluctant investor backings.

Matt Mace

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