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Radically rethinking aviation technology

Trelleborg AB Group Head Office : 08 April, 2011  (Technical Article)
Professor Dieter Peitsch believes that the slow evolution in the design of aircraft engines over the past 50 years needs to be replaced by a radical rethink of aircraft, air travel and engine configurations.
Professor Dieter Peitsch is not a soothsayer, but he does know a thing or two about the future of aviation and aeronautics. Peitsch is Managing Director of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Berlin Institute of Technology in Germany. The Berlin Institute of Technology, or Technische Universität Berlin (known as TU Berlin), is located in Germany’s capital city and is an internationally renowned university. It was founded in 1879 and has approximately 27,000 students.

“In the face of increasingly stringent requirements, the three most pressing concerns for the aviation industry are reducing noise, CO2 and nitrogen emissions,” says Peitsch. “And then there is the necessity of finding alternatives to fossil fuels. Another challenge if we need new and radical aircraft and engines, is the coordination on a global scale of all the players in this field. The cultural obstacles are difficult when you are working on one product at a time.”

Despite economic downturns, natural catastrophes, global warming, even the discomfort of air travel, all indications point to air travel tripling in the next 20 years. In Europe alone, 5,000 planes move 1 billion passengers per year.

“When I was young we were lucky to travel 300km by car for a holiday,” says Peitsch. “Today people go around the world with low-cost carriers. Despite advances in video conferencing, we, as humans, still like seeing people face to face.”

While the principles of lift and propulsion do not change, some of the radical new ideas within aviation that Peitsch mentions include placing engines on top of the aircraft instead of hanging them from the wings, or putting them at the rear of the plane. This would radiate the noise upward from the aircraft and not downward towards the ground and populated areas, which Peitsch says would make a big difference in terms of noise level.

And quieter planes would mean that capacity utilization at airports could be improved with additional nighttime flights that would reduce crowds and mitigate congestion. Some airports restrict operating hours to limit noise over residential neighborhoods.

Other areas of promise include developing a “blended wing body” where the body of the aircraft offers lift. According to preliminary drawings from NASA and Boeing, these futuristic aircraft will offer significant improvements in structural, aerodynamic and operational efficiency.

Besides design changes on aircraft, another area that can offer energy savings is better air traffic management, or ATM. Reducing the need for planes to circle an airport due to runway congestion can save considerable amounts of fuel as well as lower emissions.

“The U.S. has more or less a single system of ATM guiding all airplanes across the continent, but in Europe every country has its own system where responsibilities switch between different airspaces, and this leads to significantly longer flight times than are actually required,” says Peitsch.

Just as with the automotive industry, new developments in aeronautics are dependent on the price of oil.

“Today global warming and high oil prices mean that aircraft manufacturers are scrambling for greater fuel economy and lower emissions and pushing for alternative fuels,” says Peitsch. “The problem with the first generation of biofuels was that they could freeze at high altitudes and if used widely would have interfered with our food chain. But nowadays there are some very promising approaches with ‘designer’ fuels that can be used straightaway as ‘drop-in’ fuels, with current combustion chamber technology. Besides this, they can be made from virtually any organic substance such as, for example, waste material or algae.”

But of course the crux of the issue is to make better engines. And this is Peitsch’s real area of expertise. “The geared turbofan, or GTF, is a totally new engine developed by Pratt & Whitney and Germany’s MTU that slows down the fan at the front of the engine with a gearbox, thereby letting the driving low-pressure turbine turn faster and more efficiently,” says Peitsch. “The GTF weighs less, cuts fuel burn by 15 percent and is much quieter than a conventional engine. With the Open Rotor concept there is even more potential for fuel savings. However, issues with noise and vibrations must be addressed.”

The new GTF engines will go into service in 2013 on planes to be built by Bombardier and Mitsubishi, but the Open Rotor concept will need more time for development.

Aircraft designed to reduce noise levels will bring big advantages to airports in residential areas.
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