When birds land, their wings adjust to the airstreams, allowing them to spend as little energy as possible. By contrast, aeroplanes use clunky landing flaps that help channel the air but also waste large amounts of energy.
A research team, financed by the EU, has developed a new material that allows aeroplane wings to function more like birds' wings. "Our prototype shows that it reduces the aeroplane's fuel consumption by 6% thanks to the reduced air resistance", explains Andreas LÜhring, a research scientist at the
What seems so easy for birds is, in fact, an extremely tricky task. "You have to develop a very particular kind of material that can cope with temperatures of -55C at the plane's cruising altitude, and at such temperatures most materials get stiff," explains LÜhring. "But when the plane lands it needs to be flexible." LÜhring and his colleagues, part of a team of around 50 scientists from 15 European companies, universities and research institutes, found a formula that does the trick: solid materials such as aluminium mixed with soft ones such as silicone and even silicone foam, a very elastic substance that functions much the same as a bath sponge when it's squeezed.
The project, called Saritsu (Smart Intelligent Aircraft Structures) and coordinated by
Another aviation innovation could eventually eliminate the sector's CO2 emissions altogether. Solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse, is fuelled not by petroleum but by solar energy. "It has unlimited endurance", explains AndrÉ Borschberg, Solar Impulse's co-founder. "It can fly for weeks and months without stopping to fuel because it collects its energy from the sun. The energy it collects during the daylight hours is enough to power it during hours of darkness as well." Borschberg, a Swiss businessman, is also a former fighter pilot. Four years ago, he set the record for the world's longest solar-powered flight, when he flew the Solar Impulse I plane for 26 hours straight.
The company has now built Solar Impulse 2, which Borschberg and his co-founder
Zero fossil fuel consumption is, of course, a gigantic aviation leap. But a single-seater plane will hardly make a dent on the aviation business. That, Borschberg explains, is not even the company's intention right now. "It takes a long time to change things in the aviation business, and of course making a solar jumbojet will take a long time", he explains. "Every aspect has to go through many rounds of testing. For now, we want to use the plane as an ambassador for fuel efficiency. If we used energy in this way in different sectors, we could reduce our consumption by 50%."
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