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Could Air Someday Power Your Flight? Airlines Are Betting on It.


One other innovation has been on the radar since a minimum of the Cold War: hydrogen-powered aircraft. However the engineering challenges listed below are significant. Hydrogen as a gas is simply too voluminous to be stored in useful quantities on board an airplane, so it needs to be cooled to minus 253 Celsius, or about minus 423 Fahrenheit, the temperature at which hydrogen condenses right into a liquid. Cryogenic infrastructure for fueling and storage would also should be built at airports world wide.

However the technology exists: NASA and the European Space Agency have long used it successfully, and researchers at corporations like Airbus and Rolls-Royce are working to adapt the technology for industrial aviation.

“With hydrogen, you possibly can actually get to the purpose where you’ve zero carbon emissions,” said Lahiru Ranasinghe, the senior sustainability manager at easyJet, a European low-cost airline that’s investing in hydrogen-powered technology.

Electric-powered flight is one other low-carbon option. Due to the current limitations of the batteries that power their engines, fully electric aircraft lack the energy to propel large planes over long distances, but they may offer an answer for smaller planes flying shorter routes. On this front, Norway appears to be leading the way in which: In keeping with Avinor, the Norwegian airport operator, all the country’s domestic flights must be fully electric by 2040. Wideroe, a Norwegian regional carrier, plans to have its first fully electric aircraft in service by 2026.

The aviation industry has focused on cutting back on carbon, but several academics say that there’s a low-hanging fruit by way of reducing the climate impact of flying. It seems that contrails have a profound impact on the planet’s temperature.

“At a really high level, we’ve known for greater than 20 years that contrail warming has been very significant — and comparable to CO2,” said Dr. Barrett of M.I.T.

The science is complicated, Dr. Barrett said, because their effect relies on the time of day. At night, contrails trap heat radiating off the earth, resulting in additional warming. But throughout the day, contrails also radiate the sun’s energy back into the atmosphere and may even have a cooling effect. But studies have shown that the general impact is considered one of significant warming — anywhere from half to 3 times the effect of the aviation industry’s carbon dioxide emissions.

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