Human fascination with flying can be traced back to ancient India where the epic Ramayana mentions the “Pushpak Vimaan”. As centuries passed by and technologies advanced, our idea of flying began to take a more definite shape. A major breakthrough was achieved during the Renaissance period in 16th century Italy, which saw the rising star of one of the world’s most versatile personalities – Leonardo Da Vinci. While we know him today as a revolutionary painter, Da Vinci’s interests were not confined to mere artistry. In fact, one subject that he was passionate about was mechanical dynamics that would enable humans to soar the skies.
As a result, he produced close to 500 sketches, providing vivid details about flight engineering and in 1506, he wrote a small manuscript on the subject called ‘Codex on the Flight of Birds’. Encouraged by Da Vinci’s pioneering research, many other thinkers and scientists explored the possibility of human flight. However, it was not until the 18th century that any fruitful progress was made. Let us take brief tour into the history of aircraft engines.
- Isaac Newton: In the 18th century, the English physicist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, theorized, based on his own Third Law of Motion, that a rearward-channeled explosion could push forward a machine at a higher speed.
- Henri Giffard: The French engineer is known to have built the first aircraft engine that was a three horse-powered steam engine. Unfortunately, it was too heavy to fly.
- Otto Daimler: The German engineer is famous to have invented the world’s first gasoline engine in the late 19th century.
- Samuel Langley: This American astronomer and physicist-built steam engine-powered model airplanes and in 1896, successfully flew the Aerodrome, an unmanned airplane with an engine powered by steam.
- The Wright Brothers: In 1903, these American aviation pioneers successfully flew the world’s first 12 horsepower gas-powered engine called The Flyer. Their internal combustion technology in engines paired with propellers was replicated by the world over till the 1930s.
- Frank Whittle: The British pilot, Frank Whittle, patented the world’s first turbo jet engine in 1930 and in 1941, the first Whittle engine took flight.
- Hans von Ohain: This German physicist successfully flew the world’s first turbojet-powered plane in 1939, a few years before Whittle.
- 1942: General Electric built America’s first jet engine for the US Air Force, which flew in 1942.
Coming back to the 21st century, aircraft engine technology has made remarkable headway and its rate of progress is showing no signs of slowing down. One of the most prominent trends that is redrawing the contours of the aircraft engine is the increasing focus on sustainability. This shift has been gradual as travelers, companies, and government became more educated on the tremendous harm caused by airplanes to the atmosphere. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, airplanes are likely to emit 43 gigatons of pollutants that can warm up the planet at an immeasurable rate by 2050. To meet this challenge, many international organizations are taking decisive steps.
ICAO’s Environment Committee Adopts Strong Measures
In February 2019, the Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) met at Montreal and agreed upon some stringent measures to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment. These measures included:
- New regulations to limit the emission of non-volatile Particulate Matter (nvPM) from aircraft engines;
- Setting of higher environmental standards for certifying aircraft engines;
- Reducing offsetting requirements of airlines through improved calculation of benefits received from sustainable aviation fuels under the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA); and
- Formulating the eligibility criteria for Sustainability Certification Schemes (SCS).
Europe’s Innovative Public-Private Partnership
In 2008, the European Commission and the European aeronautics industry leaders partnered to form the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking (CSJU). In 2014, the Clean Sky 2 project was launched which made the CJSU Europe’s leading aviation research body. Under the Clean Sky program, the Sustainable and Green Engines (SAGE) ITD was initiated by the EU to explore sustainable engine technologies for the civil aviation market in Europe. In 2015, engine demonstrations were held in London where many market players exhibited their innovations. For instance, Safran showcased its Geared Pusher Open Rotor engine which can reduce carbon emissions by 30%. Similarly, Rolls-Royce displayed its Advanced Low Emissions Combustion System Engine designed to tackle pollution caused by Nitrogen Oxide (NOx).
Economics vs Ecology: Can the Two Converge?
An even more significant advancement in aircraft engine technology is the birth of hybrid engines. Industry giants such as Airbus and Safran are increasingly investing in developing hybrid aircraft engines. This has opened up new avenues for innovation in the aircraft engine market. Some of the notable developments in this context include:
- July 2019: GE Aviation went into a partnership with XTI Aircraft Company to install its Catalyst engine for the TriFan 600, XTI’s business aircraft. GE’s engine would power XTI’s new hybrid-electric propulsion system, giving GE the opportunity to enter the hybrid aircraft engine domain.
- June 2019: Safran joined hands with Airbus and Daher to develop a unique distributed hybrid propulsion aircraft demonstrator called the EcoPulseTM. The idea behind this innovation is to bring down airplane emissions through a combination of efficient propulsion, aerodynamic optimization, and thorough testing of the technology. The maiden flight using this system would be conducted in 2022.
- March 2019: Honeywell international unveiled its hybrid-electric turbo-generator at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta. The product boasts of two compact, high-power density generators that will power the company’s HTS900 engine. The generator system is designed to burn bio-derived jet fuel that can be used in batteries and motors.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Lenny Kravitz’s Grammy Award-winning 1998 rock song, “Fly Away”, succinctly describes how all of us just want to fly high in the sky. Flying represents freedom and isn’t that what we crave for? However, the right to fly also entails certain responsibilities. Enjoying air travel comes at a cost and that cost is directly being borne by the pale blue dot that we call the Earth. Our present actions will decide our future and sustainable air travel will prove to be an important step in that direction. Balancing economic benefits with ecological concerns is a monumental task. Higher the rate of economic development, greater will be the damage to the environment. This has been the aphorism that has dictated our thinking for some decades now. The key lies in finding the right formula to achieve sustainable development without compromising the economic advantages too much. How companies and governments confront these challenges remains to be seen.
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