Can passenger airships make a triumphantly 'green' comeback?
Large airships were too sensitive to wind gusts and too sluggish to win against aeroplanes. But today, they have a chance to make a spectacular return.
The drive would provide enough thrust for a spacecraft to travel near the speed of light using only electricity, says physicist Jim Woodward.
- The thrust system utilizes piezoelectric crystals, which vibrate extremely rapidly when exposed to electric current.
- Early tests have yielded mixed results, but Woodward and his colleagues say a recent breakthrough related to the design of the thruster mount greatly increased thrust.
- Independent teams of scientists will likely test Woodward's design after the pandemic.
A heterodox view of inertia<p>Woodward's system is based on ideas that 19th-century physicist Ernst Mach proposed about inertia, which is an object's tendency to stay at rest unless acted upon.</p><p>In simple terms, Mach's principle argues that distant matter causes local inertial effects. So, a star in a far away galaxy has some effect on the inertia you encounter when you push a shopping cart. That's the idea, anyway. (Woodward gives a comprehensive breakdown of his views on Mach's principle in this <a href="https://medium.com/predict/james-woodward-on-machs-principle-for-reactionless-inertial-propulsion-34384863ad50" target="_blank">blog post</a>.)</p><p><span></span>In the 20th century, Albert Einstein incorporated Mach's ideas into his theory of general relativity, essentially arguing that gravity and inertia are fundamentally linked. But the broader physics community later rejected this view of inertia, largely because of a <a href="http://people.loyno.edu/~brans/ST-history/phd-thesis-Brans.pdf" target="_blank">1961 paper</a> that showed inertia to be unrelated to the gravitational influence of distant matter.</p><p>Still, Woodward believes Einstein had it right all along, and that, under this framework of inertia, it's possible to develop propulsion systems that require only an electrical charge, not fuel. The key element of his thruster is a stack of piezoelectric crystals, which produces an alternating electric field when voltage is applied to it, as Woodward explained:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Piezoelectric crystals are <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromechanics" target="_blank">electromechanical</a> devices, which means that when you apply the voltage, they mechanically expand & contract depending upon the sign of the voltage. So by applying a voltage, you're causing an E/c² energy fluctuation in the stack no matter what they do mechanically, and you're also producing an acceleration because of the changing dimensions of the stack due due to electromechanical effects, which also causes the acceleration required couple the device to the large gravitational field."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The trick is timing the energy fluctuations and mechanical oscillations correctly, which requires using two frequencies — at the first and second harmonics, and it's the second harmonic that actually produces thrust."</p>
High-reward work<p>After the COVID-19 pandemic settles down, other scientists and engineers hope to put Woodward's designs to the test. The results of those experiments should reveal whether he's onto something. To some experts in the field, the odds are slim. But that doesn't mean it's not worth investigating.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I'd say there's between a 1-in-10 and 1-in-10,000,000 chance that it's real, and probably toward the higher end of that spectrum," Mike McDonald, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, told Wired. "But imagine that one chance; that would be amazing. That's why we do high-risk, high-reward work. That's why we do science."</p>
Otto Aviation says the hourly cost of flying the new Celera 500L is about six times cheaper than conventional aircraft.
- The unusual shape of Otto Aviation's Celera 500L was designed to maximize laminar flow.
- Laminar flow is the smooth flow of air over an aircraft's wings, and optimizing laminar flow can make aircraft incredibly efficient.
- The plane can hold up to six passengers, and is expected to hit commercial markets around 2025.
Otto Aviation<p>Otto says the Celera 500L requires about one-eighth the fuel of a conventional jet.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The design of the Celera fuselage takes advantage of an optimum length-to-width ratio to maximize laminar flow," Otto Aviation wrote on its <a href="https://www.ottoaviation.com/technology" target="_blank">website</a>, adding that the design results in a 59-percent reduction in drag compared to similarly sized aircraft. "These benefits will not scale for large jet transports and are therefore well suited for an aircraft like the Celera."</p><p>Other specs include:</p><ul><li>Glide range of 125 miles at 30,000 feet, which is roughly three times better than conventional aircraft.</li><li>Fuel efficiency levels that are 30 percent better than FAA and ICAO target emissions standards for aircraft entering service after 2031.</li><li>Liquid-cooled V12 engine, twin 6-cylinder bank, capable of independent operation with mutually independent critical engine sub-systems for each bank.</li></ul>
Otto Aviation<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We believe the Celera 500L is the biggest thing to happen to both the aviation and travel industries in 50 years," William Otto Sr., the Chairman and Chief Scientist of Otto Aviation, said in a <a href="https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/36016/the-potentially-revolutionary-celera-500l-officially-breaks-cover" target="_blank">statement</a>. "Beyond using our aircraft for passenger travel, it can also be used for cargo operations and military applications. Since the results from our prototype test flights have been so promising, we're ready to bring the Celera 500L to market."</p><p>The company hopes to deliver the Celera 500L to market around 2025, pending FAA certification. If successful, manufacturers like Otto Aviation, <a href="https://cnn.com/travel/article/transcend-air-jet-speed-business-flights/index.html" target="_blank">Transcend Air</a>, and Airbus could usher in the era of air taxis, where people hail aircraft like they do taxis or Ubers. Paris, for example, was planning to have flying taxis in time for the 2024 Olympic Games, though it's unclear whether the pandemic will affect the project.</p>
Otto Aviation<p>As far as how COVID-19 has affected the launch of the bullet plane?</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We didn't anticipate Covid-19," Otto told <a href="https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/celera-500l-plane/index.html" target="_blank">CNN</a>. "But there are enhanced market opportunities in being able to afford to fly with only those you choose to. Being able to avoid crowded airports and lines is another big benefit. [...] In many cases, individuals and families will be able to charter the Celera 500L at prices comparable to commercial airfares, but with the convenience of private aviation."</p>
The Earth Return Orbiter is part of a long-term mission to search for ancient alien life on Mars.
- On July 30, NASA is set to launch the Perseverance rover toward Mars on a mission to search for biosignatures of ancient life within the planet's Jerezo Crater.
- The soil samples collected by the rover would then be launched from the Martian surface into orbit, where a European-made "cargo ship" will intercept the container.
- The cargo ship — a satellite called the Earth Return Orbiter — could return the samples to Earth for further study by 2031.
Jerezo Crater landing site
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/University of Arizona via Wikimedia Commons<p>It would be the first mission to return Martian matter to Earth.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is not just twice as difficult as any typical Mars mission; it's twice squared — when you think about the complexity involved," Dr. David Parker, the director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA), told <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/science-environment-53575353" target="_blank">BBC News</a>.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"And this satellite that Airbus will build - I like to call it 'the first interplanetary cargo ship', because that's what it will be doing. It's designed to carry cargo between Mars and Earth."</p>
ESA's Earth Return Orbiter
ESA<p>Finding signs of alien life isn't the rover's only function. The 2,300-pound Perseverance will be equipped with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, a small 4-pound drone designed to help scientists learn more about the feasibility of achieving flight on Mars, a planet with an atmosphere that's <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/6-things-to-know-about-nasas-ingenuity-mars-helicopter/" target="_blank">99 percent less dense than Earth's</a>.</p><p>Perseverance will also carry technology designed to analyze the chemical composition of the Martian surface, study weather, take images of the Martian subsurface, and produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide — a proof-of-concept method that could someday allow astronauts to produce oxygen for rocket propellant or breathing.</p>
Illustration of the Mars Ascent Vehicle
NASA<p>But Perseverance's main mission is to find signs of alien life. If it does, that would suggest that life may be relatively common throughout the universe, as Kenneth Farley, the project scientist for Perseverance and a professor at the California Institute of Technology, told <a href="https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/28/21307109/nasa-mars-rover-perseverance-launch-date-alien-life" target="_blank" style="">The Verge</a>:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The central question of 'Is there life on other planets?' — it really comes down to: is the origination of life some kind of magic spark that happens only incredibly rarely, or alternatively, is it the kind of thing that is inevitable?" Farley said. "What we can do is we can go to such place in our own solar system on Mars and ask the question, 'Is life ubiquitous?'"</p>
We need electric planes, sustainable aviation fuels, and hybrid propulsion now, not later.
In the year when the Swedish word "flygskam" (flight-shaming) hit the news in Europe, public concern about carbon emissions from aviation is endangering the sector's social license to operate.
The KLM airplane which runs on biokerose, a type of biofuel.
Lex Lieshout/AFP/Getty Images<h2>2. Finance takes to the skies</h2><p>Such funding from corporate actors, or a collection of willing enterprises, could also be accumulated in a new type of investment fund, not unlike the<a href="https://oilandgasclimateinitiative.com/" target="_blank"> Oil and Gas Climate Initiative</a>. Through co-investment, the high risks associated with new refineries and related infrastructure can be lowered, and there can be greater confidence the SAF will be used once produced (referred to as "off-take agreements" in the industry). The more plants that are built, the cheaper the production process and fuel product becomes. The resulting SAF from new refineries may only be used several years after the initial investment, but the capital pooled in the investment fund could provide the initial push necessary to get the industry to 2% (or even higher) use of SAF by 2025. As was shown in the case of solar energy, this would be an important benchmark that raises the prospect for reaching price parity with conventional fuel and achieving a complete energy transition of the industry over the longer term.</p><p>Financial institutions could play a direct role themselves. The World Economic Forum's community of CEO Climate Leaders <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/11/business-is-stepping-up-its-fight-against-climate-change-this-is-how/" target="_blank">has made great strides</a> in reducing the carbon footprints of their businesses in order to help meet the Paris Climate Goals. Some of the CEOs represent banks that have taken active steps towards ceasing to provide funding for coal-fired power stations and other heavily polluting assets. More recently, stakeholders in the shipping industry have launched the Poseidon Principles, which sees 11 major banks commit to lending portfolios and practices that incentivise the transition to a decarbonised shipping industry. A similar approach in the airline industry could result in beneficial financing terms for operators that commit to progressive adoption of SAF.</p><h2>3. Supply</h2><p>If buyers' clubs have the potential to provide significant momentum through a demand-led approach, opportunities exist for supply-led stimulation as well. One option is for airport operators, in collaboration with their carriers, to make landing rights and lowered associated fees an incentive for driving sustainability. Airports faced with the need to expand in order to accommodate growing demand are under huge pressure to limit their environmental footprint or undertake net-zero growth. The beauty of blended biofuels means that airports could gradually ramp up the percentage of SAF provided to airlines, raising it slowly as global supply increases. That percentage could increase to double digits by the 2030s.</p><p>In addition, smart regulatory choices designed to make production and sale of SAF more attractive could help level the playing field with traditional petroleum-based fuels. In emerging economies, like India and Brazil, where there is an abundance of appropriate feed stocks, inexpensive solar and wind resources or land available for refineries, such incentives could serve to encourage investment into new supply chains and scale SAF production in the near to medium term.</p><p>The well-sequenced combination of nuanced demand- and supply-led innovations, alongside the emergence of new or improved technologies, presents the aviation industry with a much-needed opportunity to protect its social license to operate and grow in an age of increased awareness around carbon emissions. There is no time to lose.</p><p>Reprinted with permission of the <a href="https://www.weforum.org/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>. Read the <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/carbon-neutral-flying/" target="_blank">original article</a>.</p>