Correction [1/14/2016]: The original title of the article said NASA’s composite material solution could save airlines $250 million. It is actually $250 billion. The article has been updated.
Last week, NASA announced that new “green technology” that incorporates composite materials could help the United States airline industry save $250 billion while simultaneously cutting pollution by 75 percent and noise to nearly one-eighth of today’s levels.
The technology, developed by NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project, features a new process for stitching together large sections of lightweight composite materials to create damage-tolerant structures that could be used in building future aircraft that weigh up to 20 percent less than a similar aircraft made with traditional metals.
“If these technologies start finding their way into the airline fleet, our computer models show the economic impact could amount to $255 billion in operational savings between 2025 and 2050,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics research.
ERA researchers used tiny nozzles to blow air over test fins at Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator 757 lab and found that smaller fins could be produced safely. Smaller fins reduce weight and weight drag. In addition to the Boeing test, NASA says it successfully tested a radical new morphing wing technology that allows an aircraft to seamlessly extend its flaps, leaving no drag-inducing, noise-enhancing gaps for air to flow through. According to UK-based FinancialNews, FlexSys and Aviation Partners of Seattle already have announced plans to commercialize this technology.
The ERA was originally developed in 2009 to develop and calculate the feasibility of concepts to reduce aviation’s environmental footprint. Project researchers focused on eight major integrated technology demonstrations falling into three categories – airframe technology, propulsion technology and vehicle systems integration.
By the time ERA officially concluded in 2015, NASA had invested more than $400 million, with another $250 million in-kind resources invested by industry partners who were involved in ERA from the start.
“It was challenging because we had a fixed window, a fixed budget, and all eight demonstrations needed to finish at the same time,” said Fayette Collier, ERA project manager. “We then had to synthesize all the results and complete our analysis so we could tell the world what the impact would be. We really did quite well.”