Advances in aerodynamics, navigation, and more mean more efficient flights

Fuels |  2 min. read

A quick glance at an airplane is enough to figure out that the Wright Brothers were old-school birdwatchers.

Even today, over a century after Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the first successful plane, engineers look to birds in their quest to create modern airplanes that are lighter, more aerodynamic and, thus, more fuel efficient.

From the early days of flight to today, traditional fuels have been crucial to air travel, and they will continue to be an important part of keeping planes in the air and people on the move for the foreseeable future. Lifting heavy airplanes off the ground, and propelling them through the skies over long distances, requires a lightweight, hyper-efficient energy source. Jet fuel’s density of energy, which is about 60 times greater than an equivalently weighted battery, remains unmatched for this purpose, and why we won’t be seeing electric planes shipping passengers across the globe any time soon, according to NASA researchers.

Still, the reliance on jet fuel has not stifled, but has rather inspired, significant innovation in recent decades. Strategies that have reduced the weight of planes and improved efficiency in flights and flight patterns have helped to reduce average jet fuel burn rate for commercial airlines by nearly 50 percent from 1960 to 2014, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). And current and future innovations are proving the skies aren’t just the limit for increased efficiency, but also an ongoing source of inspiration.

Take, for example, the Airbus Albatross, a new plane being tested that, like most modern planes, is constructed with help from a carbon-fiber reinforced polymer, a petrochemical-derived product (in this case a BPA-based epoxy resin that starts with propylene and benzene) that is lighter and stronger than the traditional aluminum that’s been used in aircraft production for decades. The Albatross’ headline feature, of course, is its “flapping wingtips” that aim to mimic how birds can switch from gliding with locked wings over long distances without stopping, to flapping while navigating turbulent winds.

Not only are changes in aerodynamics creating fuel efficiencies, but also changes to the fuels themselves.

Last year, for instance, United Airlines, in partnership with Chevron and World Energy, flew a Boeing 787 Dreamliner across the U.S. and the Atlantic, from San Francisco to Zurich – powered by a blend of biofuel and conventional jet fuel. This summer, Delta Airlines partnered with BP Air to similarly add biofuels to the fuel mix of some of its delivery airplanes. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has been working on using algae to produce biofuel for jets.

These discoveries, combined with other strategies such as navigation systems that can steer aircrafts from unfavorable weather conditions, to better flight planning, are coming at a crucial time. Air passenger demand is expected to double over the next two decades from the 4.3 billion who packed into planes last year.

The good news? While the number of people flying has been climbing in altitude, jet fuel use continues to descend. Although the number of passengers on U.S. carriers was 7 percent higher in 2016 than in 2007, 11 percent less jet fuel was burned during that time period, the EIA report stated.

Thanks to scientifically-inclined “birdwatchers” – a term first recorded in 1891, just eight years before the Wright brothers launched their program of aeronautical research – we’re still learning new ways to mimic the lightweight, ultra-efficient movements of our avian friends.