Jet Fuel Fiasco
Updated: May 26, 2020
The commercial airline industry is well known as one of the most volatile markets on the planet. Huge overhead costs of constructing and developing new airliners and the massively fluctuating price of aviation fuel lead to airlines going out of business and new enterprises exploding onto the market in a never-ending flurry of confusion.
The hunt for an airliner which has a stable fuel source is on, and it is only a matter of time before a critical player hits the jackpot, or so we hope.
Realistically there’s only a handful of possible options, but they’re fascinating and seldom talked about.
The parameters are simple; the energy source has to be reliable and able to supply the aircraft with enough energy to close match or outcompete aviation fuel - weight for weight. Electric planes are starting to flood the market of light aircraft with meagre running costs, enabling cheap flights at the price of low range and slower speeds.
Unfortunately for the long-range full-size airliners, this technology does not get off the ground as the range limitations are far too severe.
Interestingly, however, this does not mean that electric commercial flight will not be a big player in the years to come. An Israeli company called E-Aviation has made a functioning prototype called Alice which can carry up to nine passengers. Rolls Royce, Airbus and Siemens are working on the E-Fan, due to fly in 2021 (probably 2022 due to global lockdowns) which will carry closer to 100 passengers with medium-range capacities of around 1000-1500km. This is big news for small countries such as the UK which could see a spike in the re-opening and use of small, local airfields to transport closer to desired destinations with a fraction of the cost of an aviation fuelled flight.
But what about intercontinental travel?
While electric intercontinental flight at the same speed as a classic is the holy grail, the reality is we likely need a new form of fuel.
Nuclear immediately springs to mind, massive energy output to weight requirements make it an ideal player, and it is... If you don’t mind the lethal doses of radiation to accompany your inflight entertainment.
The lead lining requirements to shield passengers from a tiny reactor pretty much make the concept a pipedream. We wanted to interview the test pilots of the soviet made Tupolev Tu-199 for this article, but unsurprisingly, they’re all dead.
Hydrogen fuel cells are a possible alternative as they have a much higher specific energy density than batteries. However, it is still around four times lower than aviation fuel and much more dangerous to handle. The aviation industry would, therefore, have to adopt radically more efficient wing designs to make up for the radical increase in weight, meaning that hydrogen comes onto the field as the first real alternative to aviation fuel but with decades of serious hurdles to cross to reach.
Another alternative would be Plasma Jets - yep full sci-fi mode enabled. A research group at the University of Wuhan has developed a plasma jet with a specific impulse which exceeds that of a conventional jet engine (https://aip.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1063/5.0005814). If a high power microwave source can safely be incorporated into the aircraft design (https://aip.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1063/5.0005814), the world might start looking like reruns of Star Trek at zero carbon cost.
While new technology companies battle to get their sleek looking prototypes to stop killing the test pilots, there is one true titan already making big footprints towards carbon neutrality.
Synthetic fuel. Synthetic or biofuel based aviation gas is likely the future of the skies. Many airline companies are already adopting the practice incrementally to aid the industry to grow. However, a 6-fold higher price tag on synthoil means that the sector needs backing to get a strong foothold.
What I love about this is that we can help. Next time you’re looking to book a trip use this website; https://www.alternativeairlines.com/biofuel-airlines here you can find flights that use biofuels, and in doing so promote a renewable alternative to jet fuel and cut your carbon footprint.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading; keep the blue side up!