energy transition

NASA Joins Forces With Boeing to Produce Low-Emissions Aircraft

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NASA is joining forces with Boeing to push the envelope for aircraft design into a more sustainable future. The NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stressed the ‘aeronautics’ in its acronym when he introduced a $1.15 billion project with Boeing to build and test a more fuel-efficient version of the Boeing 737. That aircraft is the workhorse for US airlines and accounts for nearly 50% of all domestic flights. A more sustainable design that harnesses the latest innovations in aerodynamics and composite materials could cut its fuel usage by as much as 30%, NASA officials said on Wednesday at a press conference in Washington, D.C. to announce the project.

If everything goes as planned, the new plane would have its first flight test in 2028 and enter commercial service in the 2030s. NASA officials said that it would revolutionize the US fleet which would “make a big leap into green aviation.” Nelson pointed out that NASA is not only a space agency but also a climate agency. “NASA is at the cutting edge of technology when it comes to flight. Innovation is in our DNA.” In recent years its research has led to more fuel-efficient aircraft and flight procedures. These include the upturned tips of aircraft wings that cut fuel consumption and new procedures that reduce fuel usage for take-off and landing at airports in the US. The agency is also developing a supersonic plane that can fly over land and leading development of electric propulsion with its X57 prototype, which will undergo test flights this year.

Back to the Future

The revolutionary design for the single aisle aircraft will have next generation engines and long, thin wings with a horizontal brace for stabilization. “It’s like the concept of the old bi-plane,” Nelson said. The configuration represents a step change in aerodynamics: reducing drag by increasing the aspect ratio of the wings. From NASA’s perspective the project has three goals: to develop and flight test a new aircraft; collect flight data to validate the technology; and to inform industry decisions about aircraft design.

NASA officials emphasized that the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator (SFD) is an experimental plane. The agency is taking on the risk of development and flight testing, which will be conducted at Armstrong Air Force base in California. NASA will also do wind tunnel testing and pilot simulations. Its financial contribution amounts to $425 million, with Boeing shouldering $725 million of its price tag.

While NASA provides the technical expertise, Boeing contributes its extensive knowledge of commercial aviation and experience inserting NASA inventions into aircraft that are in service. Boeing could reap a financial windfall from the project, given its own projection that 40,000 single aisle aircraft will be needed to meet demand in the 2035-50 period.

The SFD did not emerge from thin air. The unveiling of the new plane culminates 15 years of arduous work to develop new technologies that could reduce the carbon footprint of aviation. Boeing Chief technology Officer Todd Citron said the ultra-thin wings positioned above the fuselage and braced by trusses would free up space under the wing for engines with advanced propulsion systems. Few details were provided about the engines or the fuel they would use. But the involvement of both NASA and Boeing in testing and commercializing sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) makes it certain the engines will burn SAF instead of conventional jet fuel to maximize emissions reductions.

CO2 Emissions, Emerging Technologies
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