NASA Wraps Up Green-Aviation Program

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U.S. airlines could save more than $250 billion by 2050, thanks to technologies developed by a NASA program to boost fuel efficiency, NASA said this week. These new technologies, which were funded by NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation project, could cut airline fuel use in half, reduce pollution by 75 percent, and dampen noise to one-eighth of today’s levels, NASA said. The ERA project, which launched in 2009, was concluded late last year. During its six-year run, program researchers developed and demonstrated eight integrated technologies that aim to create more efficient and quieter flight.

The technologies that researchers worked on:

  • Tiny embedded nozzles that blow air over the surface of an airplane’s vertical tail fin could allow future aircraft to be designed with smaller tails, reducing weight and drag.
  • New surface coatings aim to prevent the buildup of bugs and debris, reducing drag.
  • A new process for stitching together large sections of lightweight composite materials could help design aircraft with complex shapes that weigh 20 percent less than a similar all-metal aircraft.
  • A radical new morphing-wing technology allows an aircraft to seamlessly extend its flaps, leaving no drag-inducing, noise-enhancing gaps for air to flow through. FlexSys and Aviation Partners of Seattle have announced plans to commercialize this technology.
  • NASA worked with General Electric to refine the design of the compressor stage of a turbine engine to improve its aerodynamic efficiency. Tests showed the technology could save 2.5 percent in fuel burn.
  • The agency worked with Pratt & Whitney on a geared turbofan jet engine that could reduce fuel burn by 15 percent and significantly reduce noise.
  • NASA also worked with Pratt & Whitney on an improved design for the fuel-combustion chamber in a jet engine, demonstrating 80 percent reductions in nitrogen-oxide pollution.
  • New computer-simulation tools were developed to help engineers create designs that would reduce noise during takeoffs and landings. 
  • Wind-tunnel tests with a hybrid wing-body concept design tested how the aircraft would operate at low speeds and explored the optimal engine placement that would minimize fuel burn and reduce noise.

Reports on each of these technology demonstrations will be discussed at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Sci-Tech Conference in San Diego this week, NASA said.