From apps that suggest faster routes to airplane wings more resistant to bug guts, NASA is looking at air travel from every angle to improve efficiency and cut pollution. The Convergent Aeronautics Solutions project is very much on the conceptual side of these efforts, but by sparking the imaginations of the agency's brightest minds it could have some sort of say in the future of aviation. 3D-printed electrical engines and adaptive wings are among the five technological concepts selected for this year's project, all of which will now undergo a two-year study with a view to reducing aircraft fuel and emissions.
According to NASA, about 3.5 billion people around the globe board a plane each year. This number is forecast to double by the mid 2030s, raising some pretty pertinent questions about the sustainability of current fuel sources and the carbon that they emit. Now in its second year, the Convergent Aeronautics Solutions project is aimed at unearthing technologies that would transform air travel. More specifically, NASA is working to cut fuel use by half, lower harmful emissions by three quarters and significantly reduce aircraft noise.
A new kind of fuel cell?
Mixing hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity is a technique that has powered space travel since the 1960s, but the intricate tanks and plumbing required to store the cold liquids are hard to accommodate on airplanes. The Fostering Ultra-Efficient Low-Emitting Aviation Power, or FUELEAP, concept will see researchers study a new kind of fuel cell that draws hydrogen from standard hydrocarbon-based aviation gas and oxygen from the air. These would be combined to produce electricity to propel a hybrid electric or all-electric plane.
The air up there
With the highest theoretical storage capacity of any battery technology, lithium-air batteries (sometimes called breathing batteries) have huge potential across more than a few applications. LION: Lithium Oxygen Batteries for NASA Electric Aircraft will put researchers to work investigating new kinds of more stable electrolytes that would address one of the technology's more glaring limitations, a tendency to decompose after very few charge cycles.
The vertical tail on an aircraft is a critical fail-safe for airplanes hurtling down runways, keeping the craft centered in the event of an engine failure. But once up in the air it becomes quite the drag, literally, simply adding fuel-wasting mass, aerodynamic resistance and not a whole lot else. One way to avoid this might be to have the plane's wings play that stabilizing role during takeoff and landing instead, but mechanically speaking, how can this moving hardware best be achieved? That's what the engineers involved in the Spanwise Adaptive Wing project will be looking to find out.
The power of 3D printing
NASA is turning to the magic of 3D printing to address the perhaps one of the more pressing questions facing any form of aeronautical travel, how do we make this thing as light, yet powerful, as possible? 3D software and printing that optimize designs for mechanical efficiency have shown very real promise, from weird motorcycle parts to 3D printed bridges. NASA is hoping to use the technology to develop electric motors that are lighter, possibly smaller, and boast superior power densities as a result.
Radio communication is the go-to technology for connecting drones with pilots on the ground within a certain range, but NASA wants to let these unmanned vehicles off the leash. It hopes to instead enable satellite-based communications to give operators greater reach, but the antennas required for this are currently too clunky for such small aircraft to handle. The Lightweight, Conformal Antennas for Beyond Line of Sight Communications project will see researchers to work to develop flexible, lightweight antennas from aerogel for this purpose, which would fit snugly to the aircraft and cut down on drag, emissions and fuel use.