NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project, created in 2009 and completed in 2015, explored and documented the feasibility, benefits, and technical risk of inventive vehicle concepts and enabling technologies that would reduce aviation’s impact on the environment. Project researchers focused on eight major integrated technology demonstrations falling into three categories—airframe technology, propulsion technology, and vehicle systems integration.
“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, Associate Administrator for Aeronautics Research at NASA.
Below is a summary of these integrated technology demonstrations that could potentially cut airline fuel use in half, pollution by 75%, and noise to nearly one-eighth of today’s levels.
- Tiny embedded nozzles blowing air over the surface of an airplane’s vertical tail fin showed that future aircraft could safely be designed with smaller tails, reducing weight and drag. This technology was tested using Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator 757 flying laboratory.
- NASA developed a new process for stitching together large sections of lightweight composite materials to create damage-tolerant structures that could be used in building uniquely shaped future aircraft that weighed as much as 20% less than a similar all-metal aircraft.
- Teaming with the Air Force Research Laboratory and FlexSys Inc. of Ann Arbor, MI, NASA successfully tested a 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.
- NASA worked with General Electric to refine the design of the compressor stage of a turbine engine to improve its aerodynamic efficiency and, after testing, realized that future engines employing this technology could save 2.5% in fuel burn.
- The agency worked with Pratt & Whitney on the company’s geared turbofan jet engine to mature an advanced fan design to improve propulsion efficiency and reduce noise. If introduced, fuel burn could be reduced by 15% along with significant noise reduction.
- NASA also worked with Pratt & Whitney on an improved design for a jet engine combustor in an attempt to reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides produced. Ttests of the new design showed reductions close to 80%.
- New design tools were developed to aid engineers in reducing noise from deployed wing flaps and landing gear during takeoffs and landings.
- Studies were performed on a hybrid wing body concept in which the wings join the fuselage in a continuous, seamless line and the jet engines are mounted on top of the airplane in the rear. Wind-tunnel runs tested how well the aircraft would operate at low speeds and to find the optimal engine placement, while also minimizing fuel burn and reducing noise.
Originally published as “NASA vocal about sharing technologies to reduce noise, emissions,” in Aerospace Engineering/Aerospace & Defense Technology Online, one of SAE’s award-winning publications, on January 30, 2016.