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Powering the Future of Air Travel

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Researchers and both business and governmental leaders are looking at energy needs in every sector regarding sustainability and environmental impact to see where improvements can be made. For air travel, unique concerns arise in terms of powering planes and terminals as well as which routes and airline practices are the best for fuel-efficiency. Unfortunately, sustainable air travel with zero carbon emissions does not seem to be on the horizon for various reasons, but that does not mean that the industry is not working on solutions to get there. Current efforts include ways to lower carbon emissions on the ground and in the air, reduce waste produced in the industry and improve technology.

How Do Planes Work?
Flight works by propelling an aircraft fast enough that the air moving around the wings generates lift. The heavier the plane, the more energy is needed for take-offs, landings and for sustaining flight. Longer flights will require more fuel, which will add weight and require more power to achieve lift. Most modern aircraft reach the necessary speeds by using jet engines that consume petroleum-based fuel. While some small aircraft have completed short flights with electric motors and batteries, the technology is not developed enough for commercial flights or long-distance travel. Hybrid plane options are quickly becoming more available, and as battery technology improves, these aircraft are on track to dominate the sky within a few decades.

What Sustainable Options Are There?
Many airports are installing solar panels or wind turbines to reduce the carbon produced by the average flight and to power operations such as tower electronics, terminal systems and even the vehicles maneuvering airplanes or luggage on the ground. Combustion engines in some aircraft can consume Sustainable Aviation Fuel, SAF. This type of fuel still produces carbon emissions when burned; however, it is made from plant matter that has consumed carbon already in the atmosphere instead of oil that stores carbon underground, the overall carbon emissions are reduced significantly. The biggest downside to SAF is that it is more expensive than traditional jet fuel because of both availability and production costs.

How Can Travelers Help?
There are many things the average traveler can do to help reduce the environmental impacts of air travel, including choosing direct flights as much as possible and using airlines or airports dedicated to eliminating single-use plastics on their flights. You can also choose other means of transportation when available such as electric cars or passenger trains to reduce the demand for unsustainable flights or fly economy class to minimize the wasted space and weight luxury classes represent. Bringing your own reusable items on board, such as water bottles and headphones, can help reduce the plastic waste generated by air travel while lowering your carbon footprint.

Where Is Research Heading?
Researchers are currently innovating solutions in battery technology to help reduce the weight of these items while increasing energy capacity and safety. One of the biggest concerns in using electric aircraft is that the most efficient batteries tend to have the most catastrophic failures. Cabin fires started by battery failure can be deadly. Researchers are working on increasing the efficiency of safer batteries and looking into alternative energy storage solutions. Another big concern is that batteries weigh a lot, meaning that more energy needs to be used by the engines to maintain speeds great enough for lift, while jet fuel weighs less and is consumed during the flight, lowering the overall weight. To offset this, some researchers are developing lightweight batteries for smaller devices, such as cellular phones, for later adaptation for larger devices such as planes and other vehicles.
While air travel seems on track to continue being unsustainable, it is important to remember that current research projects and innovations in both technology and policy are changing how the airline industry contributes to carbon emissions. Investing in more sustainable and energy-efficient aircraft is a solution that will take decades to fully implement while reducing single-use plastics in the industry and powering more ground-based operations with renewable sources has already begun.

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