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How Airplanes Are Becoming Greener

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It's been nearly 120 years since the Wright brothers made the first airplane flight, which isn't really that long, relatively speaking. Today, it seems as though people have always had the capability of heavier-than-air flight. That may be partly because aviation became so significant to everyday life so soon after the first flight occurred. It was only about a decade afterward that airplanes revolutionized military operations with fighting planes in World War I.
Since then, aviation has had a significant effect on many aspects of life, not only warfare and travel but also shipping and even agriculture. However, it has not been an unmixed blessing. Airplanes burn fuel that releases carbon emissions, contributing to global warming in a significant way. The need for airplanes probably will not go away, which means that aeronautical engineers have been looking for ways to reduce aviation's carbon footprint. The following technologies are still being developed and don't have much practical application yet, but with time, one or more of them may prove the solution to making greener airplanes.

Solar Power
Solar power has gained more and more attention as a reliable, renewable, and increasingly more practical way of powering homes and other buildings. If a solar power system is so effective for a stationary structure, could it have applications for propelling a moving vehicle? Believe it or not, solar planes do exist and have existed for nearly 40 years. However, there are challenges involved in keeping a solar plane aloft. These relate primarily to keeping direct sunlight on the wings to charge the panels at all times. Not only is the plane constantly in motion, but the position of the sun in the sky keeps changing as well. Nevertheless, some remain committed to the dream of a solar-powered airplane. The Solar Impulse is one such craft that has circumnavigated the globe. As of yet, solar planes cannot collect and generate enough energy to reach the speeds and carrying capacity needed to power commercial passenger flights, but they may have applications for conducting surveillance or collecting data for research.

Biofuel is an organic material that is burned as fuel to produce energy to power vehicles. It can be made from a variety of plants, including corn. Biofuel is "clean-burning," meaning that it does not release any harmful vapors into the atmosphere. In theory, it certainly holds potential for the aviation industry. Unfortunately, for now, it is still too expensive to be practical for powering airplanes.

Smaller Planes
Smaller planes use less fuel, so they are less expensive to fly than the big liners. During the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines took advantage of this fact to save money while they were making fewer flights due to lockdown orders in many cities around the country and the world. Flying smaller planes had the side effect of releasing fewer carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The same practice could be continued to combat climate change. However, for this to be as efficient as possible, the smaller planes have to be fully loaded with cargo or passengers.

Fuel Cells
Fuel cells are an emerging technology that would produce electricity by converting hydrogen. This could be extremely efficient because hydrogen can pack a lot of energy in a relatively small space when condensed. Because the technology is so new, however, society is probably at least four years from seeing it implemented on commercial planes, and even then, the application will probably be limited.

New Wing Designs
Engineers have been working on adapting the plane itself to be more fuel efficient. One development that shows promise is a new wing design. Compared to existing designs, the new wings are thinner and longer. A truss is needed to support them. They perform remarkably well in experiments carried out in wind tunnels and can reduce fuel usage by 50%. However, because the new design is so radical, there is a big risk involved in adopting it now. Nevertheless, with more testing to confirm how effective and safe the new wings are, they could be implemented sometime within the next 30 years.

While the benefits of these technologies are largely theoretical at the moment, their potential is enormous.

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