AIAA hosts seminar on sustainable aerospace research

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NASA's all-electric X-57 Maxwell prepares for ground vibration testing, or GVT, at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Done in parallel with cruise motor controller testing, the GVT tested the vehicle at various vibration levels, helping engineers to examine and validate the integrity of the vehicle for flight conditions. A goal of X-57 is to help the Federal Aviation Administration set certification standards for emerging electric aircraft markets. (NASA photograph by Lauren Hughes)
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by Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News

LOS ANGELES — An aviation industry that traditionally sought to fly higher, faster and farther in ever-larger airplanes, is now racing to find the next big thing, which will likely be smaller and greener, and fly lower and slower to closer destinations.

The prize may likely go not to the swift, but to the most “sustainable” — a catchword for changes in propulsion, alternative fuels, design configurations and operations, all being driven in part by pandemic fallout hitting airlines, as well as climate change issues.

The question is, how, when and whether people who design, build and pilot airplanes can bring the optimum mix of all these pieces together? Ideas about how to do that work emerged from a weekend virtual seminar of the Los Angeles-Las Vegas Section of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Setting the stage for the sustainable aviation conference was Dr. Marty Bradley, a retired Boeing executive now consulting and teaching in projects related to electric and hybrid electric aircraft, advanced concepts and technologies, propulsion integration for advanced technologies, and aviation environmental life cycle analysis. He has broad experience in a wide variety of applications including subsonic and supersonic aircraft, high-speed missiles, hypersonic cruise vehicles, and air breathing space access vehicles.

Running down the list of subjects to be addressed, and commenting on expectations and limitations, Bradley started with noise reduction, a major headache for airport operations. He cautioned that even electrically powered aircraft will make noise. The question is what level of noise will be acceptable to the neighbors?

On greenhouse gas emissions, he said costs for renewable energy fuels are coming down. Contrails and cirrus cloud formations, while a relatively small contributor to climate change, can be reduced by flying jets at altitudes under about 35,000 feet. But he cautioned that any environmental benefit may be offset because lower flying planes burn more fuel on longer flights.

Airlines themselves might mitigate some CO2 emissions concerns, in response to reduced passenger demand brought on by the pandemic. Restricting larger jets to international routes, and using smaller, more thrifty aircraft with capacity of up to 100 passengers, could boost domestic traffic and even extend service to smaller communities

There is no shortage of options and possible combinations that might be compatible, including aircraft electrification, biofuels, hydrogen fuels, fuel cells, batteries and turbines. And for every argument in favor, there is a counter-balancing downside to be weighed. Take biofuels, for instance. As one speaker pointed out, a fuel created from plant-based materials is workable, but perhaps not so sustainable if the demand cuts into the food supply or clear-cuts a rainforest.

Conference speaker Steve Csonka, president of Csonka Aviation Consultancy, LLC, and executive director of the public-private partnership Commercial Aviation Fuels Initiative, foresees biofuels as being among the key components in the new generation of commercial aviation. This view was shared by other speakers in the virtual conference.

Another leading source for fueling the future of flight is hydrogen gas power trains, discussed in a presentation by Dr. Bruce J. Holmes, chief technology officer for Alakai Technologies Corp. His background includes industry and government roles in research, operations, and executive leadership; working at NASA; experience in the commercial on-demand air carrier world and with aviation software startups. He also served on the U.S. NextGen founding team, and most recently on an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air vehicle.

In addition to his work in launching the first hydrogen fuel-cell-powered electric air mobility vehicle, he is a senior advisor to SmartSky Networks, supporting the launch of a unique 4G LTE aviation connectivity solution and apps development platform, contributing to the Internet of Things that Fly. He serves on special groups for the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, and the FAA Administrator’s Research, Engineering, and Development Advisory Committee.

Holmes predicted the cost of hydrogen fuel will be cut in half by 2030, pointed out that hydrogen power only emits water and heated air, and provides two to three times greater power density than lithium-ion batteries.

Expanding on the prediction of affordable hydrogen fuel by 2030, Dr. Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO of ZeroAvia, Inc., a California company, stated “a sustainable 100-seat Zero-Emission Jet will be built by 2030,” and he challenged the industry to reduce emissions through existing solutions. He said, “Incrementalism is not going to get us here.”

He said the first jet to roll out in 2030 will fly 500-mile short-haul trips at half of today’s costs, creating a $100 billion market in faster, safer, cleaner, more convenient local travel. He said he believes the resulting market disruption will create 100,000-plus unit demand in the next 10 years.

Miftakhov stated his company’s project is backed by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the Amazon Climate Pledge Fund, and Shell Ventures, all of which see the venture as the most economical, near-term solution for zero-emission flight. He added that most importantly, ZeroAvia’s innovations will advance the aviation industry and airline customers trying to achieve sustainability goals for large-scale, decarbonized commercial jets.

A serial entrepreneur, Miftakhov’s previous company, eMotorWerks, developed the world’s leading platform for EV battery aggregation to provide grid services. The firm was acquired in 2017. Prior to that, Val held senior business and product positions at Google and McKinsey & Company, and was a nuclear researcher at Stanford Linear Accelerator. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Princeton University, a master’s in Physics from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and was a two-time winner of Russian Nationwide Physics competitions.

The bottom line from the conference for America’s Aerospace Valley is that better times are expected and innovations are coming. NASA is seeking proposals for ground and flight demonstrations of integrated megawatt-class powertrain systems for subsonic aircraft. The deadline for proposals for this solicitation is 5 p.m., EST, April 20.

A NASA RFP said the demonstrations will help rapidly mature and transition integrated Electrified Aircraft Propulsion technologies and associated EAP vision systems for introduction into the global fleet by 2035.

NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate has made a critical commitment to demonstrate practical vehicle-level integration of megawatt-class EAP systems, leveraging advanced airframe systems to reinvigorate the regional and emerging smaller aircraft markets, and to strengthen the single-aisle aircraft market. The Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration project directly supports retaining U.S. leadership in the aerospace manufacturing sector, the largest net-exporter of all U.S. manufacturing sectors.

Already in the hangar at NASA Armstrong and awaiting it first flight is the agency’s first all-electric X-plane, the X-57 Maxwell. High voltage ground testing will include high-power operation and throttling up the first pair of electric cruise motors.

The X-57 will help pave the way for certification standards of future electric aircraft and will be flown to validate and demonstrate the benefits that distributed electric propulsion may yield for the future of aviation.

The X-57 will undergo as many as three configurations, with the final configuration to feature 14 electric motors and propellers (12 high-lift motors along the leading edge of the wing and two large wingtip cruise motors). The goal of the X-57 is to demonstrate a 500-percent increase in high-speed cruise efficiency, zero in-flight carbon emissions, and flight that’s much quieter for the community on the ground.

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