Opinion

The ecoDemonstrator Advances Aviation Innovation and Discovery

The future of commercial air travel was on display in Washington, D.C., as part of a limited tour in the United States and abroad. The Boeing ecoDemonstrator program pushes the boundaries of innovation in aerospace by taking new technologies out of a lab setting and putting them to the test to see what works, what needs improvement and what is possible for the future of travel. At the core of the science is sustainable aviation fuel systems.

Over the past few years, the airline industry has faced many challenges. Exasperated by the unique and devastating impacts of the coronavirus, airlines are still struggling to find their footing, even as demand for airline travel increases and travelers become increasingly eco-conscious. Aircraft that pursue sustainable aviation fuel alternatives to traditional jet fuel will help find solutions to these real-world challenges and improve air travel for airlines, passengers and the environment.

Since the ecoDemonstrator program began in 2012, eight airplanes have operated as flying test beds for innovative projects, including experiments to reduce fuel use, emissions and noise. They have also incorporated more sustainable materials to ensure that future airline fleets lower their carbon imprints. Environmental consciousness is a leading priority for airlines, industry partners like Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration. Sustainability is more important than ever, and the ecoDemonstrator is helping test the technologies that will help preserve our environment for generations to come.

Recent scientific studies have shown that sustainable aviation fuels can reduce emissions by up to 80 percent compared to standard petroleum fuel over its life cycle. With further testing, it’s possible that it could reach 100 percent. Importantly, sustainable aviation fuels are chemically compatible with petroleum aviation fuel and the two can be blended for use in jet and turboprop airplanes without modification to airframes, engines or fueling infrastructure. This will provide a myriad of benefits: the opportunity for immediate pathways to begin reducing the carbon imprint of travel and air freight, less need for materials and energy expenditures to create new fueling systems jets, cost savings and immediate environmental wins as the industry transitions away from standard petroleum fuel and adopts sustainable aviation fuels and other clean technologies.

Boeing has committed to making certain its commercial airplanes will be certified to fly on 100 percent Sustainable Aviation Fuels by 2030 and already has some aircrafts flying on a mix of fuels. Additionally, Boeing’s R&D department is studying battery-powered electric aircraft as well as hydrogen aviation.

The ecoDemonstrator also tests ways to make airplane cabins more comfortable for passengers. Projects include improved seats, lavatories and smart galleys to increased reliability and efficiency of entire fleets. This is critical for airlines, which face more competition than ever with limited resources, fewer crew members and challenging schedules.

The experimentation happening on sustainable aircraft, like the ecoDemonstrator, is made possible through strategic partnerships with stakeholders across the aerospace industry. Boeing is working with Seattle-based Alaska Airlines on this year’s program, testing 20 projects focused specifically on safety and sustainability. Additionally, educational partners such as the University of Washington, governmental partners like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and international partners including the European Space Agency, provide a wealth of expertise and experience to ensure testing and technology is inclusive and broad.

This isn’t the first time Boeing has teamed up with multiple stakeholders. In 2011, Boeing, along with Alaska Airlines, Washington State University, and airports in Portland, Seattle and Spokane teamed up to create Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest. The group — made up of biofuel producers, nonprofit advocacy organizations, research institutions, government agencies, agricultural producers and other entities representing the biofuel supply chain — was the first regional stakeholder initiative in the United States to explore the opportunities and challenges surrounding the production of sustainable aviation fuels. Subsequent collaborations have led to more than $80 million in funding for Washington State University and the University of Washington.

In 2019, Boeing introduced a sustainable aviation fuel option for customers with Alaska Airlines. The fuel will be supplied by World Energy from its Paramount refinery in California. The Paramount facility is the world’s first facility designed to commercially produce renewable jet fuel, and the biofuel produced for Boeing will be made from agriculture waste. This circular economy approach is a successful demonstration of a modern systems thinking approach and models how all industry must begin to reframe production and energy consumption to achieve a modern infrastructure.

The experimentation happening now will inform the progressive path that aerospace will take in the coming years, accelerating innovation and putting a much-needed emphasis on sustainability and efficiency.

We’re in a transformational time for air travel. Aircraft like the ecoDemonstrator are a clear beacon to the industry of how we all must collaborate to enable technological innovations that shape our future and achieve our carbon goals.

 

Mel Clark is the president and CEO of CleanTech Alliance.

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