The long, skinny tube has to go. Tasked with improving the nation's air transportation, NASA wants airplanes to burn 40 percent less fuel than a 777 by 2020 and 70 percent less by 2030. Not only that, it wants those same planes to be whisper-quiet. The best -- and perhaps the only -- way to reach these ambitious benchmarks is to design commercial planes more like stealth bombers and less like pencils.
This past winter, the agency awarded $12.3 million to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other companies to develop the so-called N+3-generation airplane -- that is, a design three generations ahead of today's. The leading contender is the fabled blended-wing body, which replaces the conventional tube with a triangular shape. "It's the only design that we think can meet our fuel and noise goals," says Tony Strazisar, a senior technologist with NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program. With high-speed wind tests of scale models under way, the blended wing could take flight before 2020. Here's how it would work.
Gains in fuel efficiency and noise reduction could also come from embedding the engines into the topside of the fuselage. This produces less drag, and the airplane itself shields ground noise. The big challenge is figuring out how to design the air intakes to maximize airflow over the fuselage.
The blended wing's widened fuselage will make for amphitheater-like seating, with long, wide rows. Of course, there will be fewer window seats, but the interior design could compensate through spaciousness or swanky amenities such as in-flight lounges, viewing areas or seat-back virtual windows.
"Blended wings have been tried for years," says NASA's Tony Strazisar, "but they've always faltered because the lack of a tail creates instability." Boeing's solution: nearly 24 control flaps on the wing, with computerized control systems to coordinate them.
2012: Seed Fuel
Montana's Sustainable Oils is breeding camelina seeds -- a canola derivative -- that can easily be refined into jet fuel. Camelina's main draw is that it can be grown quickly on fallow wheat fields, so it can slot into the existing agricultural infrastructure.
2020: Algal Fuel
In January, Continental performed the first algae-fueled flight in the U.S., flying an unmodified 737 for 90 minutes on a blend of half algae-derived fuel, half jet fuel. The next major step is to reduce the cost of squeezing a gallon of oil from algae from $100 to $2.