What About Hybrid Airplanes?

Ransom Riggs

There's been so much hand-wringing lately about both the effects of carbon emissions on the atmosphere and the price of fuel, and nowhere are the effects of both more dramatic than the airline industry. From a pollution standpoint, flying round-trip between New York and London can produce as much carbon as a car does in a year. From a cost standpoint, we've all heard about the effects that high fuel prices are having on the industry: major airlines like Delta and Northwest are merging, smaller ones are going under, flights to smaller hub airports are being cut, and ticket prices are going through the roof. I can buy a Prius to combat those problems at home, why can't I fly a hybrid or alternative-fuel plane to combat them in the air?

The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, isn't a simple one. Airlines have already engaged in a massive cost-saving campaign to rid their fleets of their least-efficient planes, and are hatching plans to reduce emissions and save fuel even further -- one of them is the new Boeing Dreamliner, which sports ultra-efficient jet engines and is made of light carbon-fiber rather than aluminum. (This means not only can the plane be lofted with less power, but it'll be a more comfortable ride -- carbon fiber won't corrode, so flights can be humidified for passenger comfort, and they can withstand more cabin pressure, meaning less annoying ear-popping in flight.)

There are other efficient planes in the works, but one of the big problems the industry faces is increased demand for air travel; even if they cut emissions in half, it's estimated that by 2030, twice as many people could be flying -- so we're right back where we started. So what about alternative fuels? Well, that's on the drawing board, as well: Japan Airlines is working with Boeing on a jetfuel-biofuel mix that can work in traditional jet engines, which they hope will cut emissions by 20% per flight. The cool thing about this biofuel is that it's made from cellulosic ethanol, which turns municipal waste into fuel. (Mr. Fusion, anyone?)

This technology has a long way to go, but if the European Union has anything to say about it -- they're pouring $2.5 billion into the so-called "Clean Sky" project to develop just such technologies -- it'll be here sooner rather than later.

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