Aircraft manufacturer AirBus earlier this month revealed Smarter Skies, a kind of manifesto for cleaner, more sustainable air travel. The program is part of The Future series and serves up sustainable solutions and ideas for the expected increase in air travel by 2050 and the environmental challenges that lay ahead.
The Smarter Skies vision hinges on five concepts: Eco-climb, Express Skyways, Free-glide approaches and landings, ground operations and power. We will focus on the latter because it is there where renewable energycomes into play.
As we have reported before, the use of sustainable jet fuel is already becoming a reality. AirBus sees it as part and parcel of a sustainable air travel network. It says the use of sustainable biofuels will allow the extensive introduction of regionally-sourced renewable energy close to airports. This way, both aircraft and infrastructure could be fed with locally produced biofuels.
The mere mention of the word biofuels will make skeptics roll their eyes in disbelief that it could improve sustainability since some research seems to tell a different story. AirBus acknowledges that and asserts that very high sustainability standards are crucial. It says feedstock for biofuels could come from a number of sources such as algae, woodchip waste, camelina, jatropha, halophytes such as salicornia (plants growing in salt water), waste produce and other microorganisms.
Smarter Skies also mentions other forms of alternative energy such as solar power, fuel cells and even passenger body heat as sources of power for systems on-board or on the ground.
Aviation accounts for two percent of total anthropogenic GHG emissions, which is considerably less than the livestock industry that chalks up 18 percent of the total. 80 percent of those airline emissions come from flights over 923 miles (1,500 km) and at the moment there is no practical alternative. Besides alternative fuels, developments in aircraft design and technology, as well as improvements in air traffic management, could help decrease emissions.
There are already 50/50 blend biofuels certified for commercial flights and so far over 1,500 commercial flights worldwide have been flown on biofuels. But they are far from becoming a standard. AirBus hopes the industry will achieve the approval of 100 percent blends for commercial aircraft.
As to fuel cells, they could be used to power cabin operations. The by-product of hydrogen combined with oxygen is water and this could be used for the aircraft’s water and waste system, saving water, weight and, by default, fuel and emissions.
The company added that if its Air Traffic Management (ATM) system and technology on board aircraft were optimized (based on a calculation of 30 million flights per year), it is possible that every flight in the world could on average be around 13 minutes shorter. This would save approximately nine million tons of excess fuel annually, which equals to more than 28 million tons of avoidable CO2 emissions. Passengers would save more than 500 million hours of excess flight time on board an aircraft.
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