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Boeing concept jet could be Prius of the skies

Commercial jets of the future may have high-span wings and be powered by hybrid-electric engines.
In 2050, flying commercial may still mean crammed overhead bins and crummy food, but the engine could be powered by liquefied natural gas or electricity, according to an ongoing study on the future of flight.

Such planes might also be constructed with lighter materials, sport high-span truss-based wings, and be routed with improved air-traffic control systems, according to Marty Bradley, a technical fellow with Boeing Research and Technology who is the leading the NASA-funded study.

“We’re not really betting on any one of those [technologies] in particular, but we are identifying some future possibilities and then trying to make sure that the technology is developed far enough along so that they can be ready if they make sense at the time,” he told me Wednesday.

An energy-efficient commercial jet powered by a hybrid-electric engine similar to those in cars such as the Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt, and Nissan Leaf is among the more compelling possibilities identified to date, Bradley noted.

Such a plane, dubbed the Sugar Volt, would plug in at the airport to recharge batteries, for example, in the same way Leaf owners recharge in their garages. Conventional fuel would likely help it get off the ground. Once airborne, electricity would supply at least some of the power to the engines.

Batteries – the source of the electricity – are “the biggest challenge in making this concept work,” Bradley said.

They are heavy compared to conventional fuel and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Weight – how much of it planes have to carry – directly impacts how much energy they need, of course. That’s part of the reason, for example, that you get charged extra for heavy baggage.

“There is a penalty for carrying heavy batteries,” Bradley said. “But if you have a really efficient airplane, that penalty is reduced. So, in the study, we make the propulsion system more efficient, we make the aerodynamics more efficient, we make the airplane lighter.”

This engineering work, in turn, could translate to a plane that requires 50 percent less energy to fly than today’s commercial jets. And that means the battery only needs to be about half as big.


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