A common complaint about technological progress over the last few decades is summed up in the phrase “we were promised flying cars and got 140 characters”. There is certainly an element of truth in that view – after all, the Concorde aircraft started flying at supersonic speeds in 1976 with flight times between New York and London of 3.5 hours. Fast forward 40 years and not only are flights from JFK to Heathrow not faster than 3.5 hours, but they are in fact slower and the Concorde is no longer in service.
Yet there is hope for the future of flight and it presents opportunities in the long-term for energy investors. The Concorde in some respects was ahead of its time. The plane suffered from high costs of operations and serious fuel consumption, which led to extremely pricey plane tickets and limited its ability for mass adoption. Add to that the fact that the jet created a sonic boom that vastly annoyed residents living under the flight path near its takeoff destination, and the plane was always going to face an uphill battle. Up to 45 percent of residents in DC suburbs reported being “very annoyed” by the cupboard rattling thunder of the Concorde when it took off from nearby Dulles Airport. For future supersonic transportation to have a role in mass transportation, it needs to avoid the problems of the Concorde.
None of that means that the planes of the future can’t be faster than the planes of today. The Concorde’s final flight in 2003 was not the end of the desire of humans to spend less time going from place to place. Boeing has developed the X-51A Waverider for instance. The vehicle relies on “riding” its own shockwaves for compression lift and set a record in 2013 for longest air-breathing propelled flight at hypersonic speed. Over time, Boeing hopes to use that tech to develop a mass market space plane. Related: China Cleaning Up Its Air With Natural Gas Vehicles
Similarly, Boeing competitor Airbus filed patents last year to support the invention of a commercial aircraft that would travel at Mach 4.5, getting passengers from New York to London in just an hour, though it is unclear at this point how Airbus plans to ameliorate the issue of sonic booms associated with the plane’s launch.
Even NASA is getting into the act, working on a Quiet Supersonic Technology project which is designed to “take the sonic boom and turn it into something more like a sonic thump” according to Peter Coen who is the NASA project manager for the technology project in Langley, VA. This is accomplished in NASA’s design by modifying the shape of the plane to cancel out the highest pressure sound waves that come off of the aircraft as it accelerates. The NASA design will fly at around Mach 1.4 – slower than the Concorde’s Mach 2, but with potentially a less intrusive impact on residents in the area of the flight path.
The planes of the future will probably also look a lot like Boeing’s Dreamliner – composite materials, greater fuel efficiency, and of course modern amenities for passengers. Still energy investors should not be worried about the obsolescence of jet fuel anytime soon. The reality is that for all of the advances of battery technology, energy storage density is still extremely impractical for powering aircraft at this stage. Hydrogen fuel presents an alternative option – hydrogen was the fuel specified in Airbus’ Mach 4.5 aircraft patent filing – but hydrogen fuel is highly volatile and combustible.
Biofuels offer some potential but the capital expenditure costs associated with making large amounts of biofuel are astronomical, meaning that large upfront contracts would have to be arranged with major airlines long before any fuel was ever developed or the facilities themselves were ever built.
For the next few decades then, it seems that at least one area of the plane will remain decidedly old-school – the use of Jet Fuel A.
By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com
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