The “friendly skies” may become eco-friendlier. Researchers at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio are working toward reducing the nation’s total use of fossil fuels. Your likely question: “How?” The answer: By developing alternative aircraft designs with the use of electric-powered low-carbon propulsion technology.

A new frontier

More than 42,000 flights and 2.5 million airline passengers are in the air every day, with 5,000 aircraft in the sky at any given time. And with air traffic passenger demand projected to surge even higher in 2018, the skies will be busier than ever. From the beginning of flight travel, carbon-based fuels have been powering commercial airlines, leaving a trail of fossil fuel emissions behind them. But this heavy carbon footprint situation may be changing.

Researchers from Glenn are setting the stage for planes that will require using less fossil fuels in the future. Aeronautical engineers are taking a closer look at how airplanes can be revamped to use electric power that would provide the plane’s thrust and power for flight, while simultaneously reducing the plane’s energy consumption, emissions and noise level. Like hybrid or turboelectric power that is used in cars, boats and trains, NASA hopes to guide the aircraft industry into using hybrid electric and turboelectric propulsion, as opposed to relying solely on gas turbines.

However, these alternative aircraft designs wouldn’t be “flying solo” on electricity just yet. The alternative system would combine electric motors and generators with turbine engines.

A cleaner future

Low-carbon propulsion technology can make each flight up to 30 percent more fuel efficient and require lower operational costs, which is good news for airlines that have been hit hard with high jet fuel prices. Although the day that we see an electric-powered airplane may be years away, the idea of it is literally fueling excitement for a cleaner future.

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