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Flying into a wall?

by Colman Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 09:47:37 AM EST

New Scientist had an article recently about greener ways to fly. We’ve discussed this before, but maybe it’s time to revisit the issue.

We all know the issue: while currently the airline industry produces a small proportion of our greenhouse gas emissions these are projected to grow rapidly and massively in the medium term. Given that high-altitude are several times worse than ground level this means that even if airplane pollution isn’t a serious problem now it will be shortly.

The airline industry points to its record - there have been massive improvements in fuel efficiency in the last few decades - and claims that future incremental improvements will solve the problem.

Unfortunately, the low-hanging fruit are long picked: the industry and technology is mature and we can only expect slow improvements in efficiency, probably far below the rate of growth of industry emissions.

The obvious alternatives have already been debunked: hydrogen is too heavy, low in energy density and difficult to deal with; currently available biofuels aren’t practical for similar reasons and there are serious doubts about the production of large volumes; changing flight practices to be more efficient could save a reasonable percentage, but it’s a one-off saving and introduces more complexity into the already interesting traffic control problem.

The New Scientist article proposes that radical solutions will be required, which would mean extensive research and development and the replacement of the existing jet fleet whose design has been predicated on cheap, plentiful kerosene. Extensive research into active methods of reducing drag was apparently abandoned because they are too expensive when fuel is cheap.

The article talks about flying wings, strut supported wings, use of prop driven engines - which are not only more fuel efficient (if slower) but don’t require kerosene - and the use of drag control systems. All of which require lots of money and time to develop.

Personally, I’m of the view that it’s quite likely that we can develop a set of solutions for air travel that have an acceptable environmental cost and, while more expensive than they are currently, remain accessible to the masses. The rich will always be able to fly.

The shape of the solution is something like:

  • Discourage flying when it’s not necessary. Why does anyone need to fly from London to Paris? Develop the alternative modes of transport properly.

  • Accept that flying is the only practical way of moving people very long distances or over long stretches of water.

  • Send the airline industry the bill for the external costs of flying.

  • Put in place a programme of incentives and disincentives to encourage the industry to change sooner rather than later: we know that, left to itself, the market will change as late as possible. This would not be a good thing.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 09:49:19 AM EST
Let's add to the list:

Develop video-conferencing so that it becomes the rule for business and org people to meet online, and the exception to fly to and from conference venues.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 10:51:06 AM EST
In my experience, the most useful part of conferences is the informal off-program interactions. I don't know about business meetings, I don't do a lot of those.

And, to paraphrase Jerome, if a business meeting creates value for the companies, they can afford to pay the costs of flying (including the externalities), and if the meeting doesn't create value it's a waste of time and money anyway, videoconference or plane.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 10:56:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sure. Just after we manage to convince them that displaying their ability to fly isn't a status symbol.  And how do we manage the required social interaction?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 11:00:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sam's boss's job is basically to wander around the world convincing people that they should give him money to play with. An awful lot of that is based on direct interpersonal relationships which can only really be developed properly face to face as far as I know. Or certainly are developed most cost effectively face to face.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 11:09:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]

There is also the question of the future of globalization though.   If we end up relocalizing our economies in order to reduce transportation costs for goods, there will by definition be less of a need for people to travel to far flung corners of the world to set up business relationships.
by ericy on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 01:07:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
exactly - and when you still need to move goods around, for regional ranges, some experiments in Helium or Hot-Air dirigibles come to mind (such as the Alizé :

For Long-distance boats can't be beat, even with higher fuel prices.

Actually, even by boat, Paris-NYC only takes 7 days.

Le caoutchouc serait un matériau très précieux, n'était son élasticité qui le rend impropre à tant d'usages.- A.Allais

by armadillos (armadillo2024 (at) free (dotto) fr) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 01:29:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ship travel is cool, but it seems that ships are an increasing pollution problem in a number of ways.

A recent article describing a talk in Monaco by Maitre Beatrice Favarel (looking for electronic link) she states "that the amount of oil being discharged illegally into the Med is equal to 15 Prestige disasters a year (the Prestige sank with 77,000 tons of fuel oil off the Spanish coast in 2002."

I read another article yesterday that spoke of open sea shipping being orders of magnitude more polluting than airplanes, and unregulated, and growing in leaps and bounds. I can't find that article either, but googling 'ship pollution' seems to give plenty of hits. Just one: http://www.oceana.org/north-america/what-we-do/stop-cruise-ship-pollution/

Never underestimate their intelligence, always underestimate their knowledge.

Frank Delaney ~ Ireland

by siegestate (siegestate or beyondwarispeace.com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 06:03:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes - but I read that as opportunities to improve.

I constantly fail to understand why ships have to drain their fuel tanks anyway.It always seemed to me a stupid waste of resources and very bad for the image of naval transport as a whole -but I am not familiar enough with the whole economic equation.

I think for shipping goods (container ships), it's still fuel-efficient, because the cost of such transportation for long distances is very very low (when divided by transported volume), and will stay so even even oil price skyrockets. And that includes construction prices + associated risks : storms, piracy...

So much for a reason to reduce importations.

Le caoutchouc serait un matériau très précieux, n'était son élasticité qui le rend impropre à tant d'usages.- A.Allais

by armadillos (armadillo2024 (at) free (dotto) fr) on Fri Mar 9th, 2007 at 05:40:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not actually burnable fuel that they dump.

You see, naval fuel is the most horrible kind of sludge that is left over at the end of refinery process, and no one else wants it (so it will remain cheap whatever the future of oil).

The draw back is that it tends to leave all sorts of slimy deposits in the tanks, which are half way to asphalt. And ship owners don't want to end up with tanks full of this thing of course, so it's gotta be cleaned regularly (and cleaning means very high pressure water jets on loads of shit that clings to the walls at the bottom of the tank, plus what do you do with the shit once you've put it in a can ??).

Officially, cleaning and disposal is available as a port service, but it's expensive in the developed countries (plus the ship stays at bay for longer...). Whereas the workforce on board is basically free (pakistani slaves quite often), so the temptation is high to have a tank rotation, and clean the empty ones while travelling (to do more business !)

And so most freighter ships leave behind them a trail of filthy drops of stinking oily shits all around the world...


by Pierre on Fri Mar 9th, 2007 at 07:21:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For ordinary business meetings between colleagues who already know each other, but work in different international offices, videoconferencing is spreading rapidly. There is usually an agenda and then a poll of viewpoints. It is simple and cost effective.

I've also done a lot of phone conference calls which are equally effective, and most operators offer these excellent services cheaply. You get a phone log in number and then meet at the appointed time - amd you can do it anywhere, even from a mobile. And the company pays the cost of all connections. Nokia uses these heavily for internal and customer business meetings.

The advantage of phone conferencing is that it cuts across time zones and you can be in your dressing gown, as there is no visual to worry about.

Conferences are a different animal: 80% of the useful exchanges take place in the breaks, rather than sitting in an audience. The point is to meet new people in your field. I haven't found an effective way yet to reproduce this valuable serendipity and sharing.

But the software will surely improve and ways will be devised to accomplish this. After all, ET functions as a sort of 'conference break'. How would we have all met each other without ET? Imagine diaries as keynote speeches, comments as workshops, and open threads as socializing 'breaks'.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 11:11:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree, but why, then, do we feel compelled to have physical ET meetups?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 11:13:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think, in this discussion, the amount of flying about to business meetings (perhaps I shouldn't have used the word "conference") is being underestimated. My suggestion was to tip the balance in favour of tele-meetings (vid, or phone if it's cooler), not to do away with absolutely all "real" meetings and conferences.

As for ET, we have had very extensive/intensive contact online and in fact organize comparatively little "real" contact. And I owe you an e-mail which will be on its way this evening...

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 12:31:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A pertinent question, but in part it's because we don't have the resources/infrastructure to do video conferencing. Half of us don't even have the bandwidth, let alone the equipment.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 12:46:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 12:49:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Je sens que tu as raison...

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Fri Mar 9th, 2007 at 05:04:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Reduce Ontological Uncertainty.  I know I exist but you could be a very clever AliceBot program.  ;-)

Humans like to deal with humans face-to-face.  Pheromones, as Sven said - perhaps.  In my corporate existence I noticed salesmen who pitched their stuff in person had a vastly greater buy-rate than those who only did tele-meetings.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 01:16:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why do you think I could be an AliceBot?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 06:03:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Just being silly.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 03:37:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why are you just being silly?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 03:52:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]

I have nothing but good feelings towards you, Dave.  

I mean ... Migeru.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 11:02:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]

B-52 undergoes synthetic-fuel testing.
A B-52 Stratofortress accelerates down the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 15 during take-off for a flight-test mission using a blend of synthetic fuel and JP-8 in all eight engines.
This is the first time a B-52 has flown using a synfuel-blend as the only fuel on board. In September, the Air Force successfully flew a B-52 with two-engines using the synfuel-blend while the others used standard fuel.
The B-52 test flights at Edwards are the initial steps in the Air Force process to test and certify a synthetic blend of fuel for its aviation fleet.

Testing of the new fuel is going on since sept.2006 and will last till june 2007. More about this can be found via this link: B-52 undergoes synthetic-fuel testing.

In short :

  • The US military flying things use roughly 3 billion gallons of fuel (the civilian aviation-industry about 13 billion gallons.)

  • The US airforce is the largest purchaser of fuel in the world, so when they decide to purchase a new type of fuel this will set the norm for the whole aviation market.

  • The new type of fuel they test now is a blend of 50% JP8 and 50% from coal or natural gas liquefaction.

  • The industry is poisened to invest in this liquefaction tecnology :
    Sounds good so far, right? Here is some icing for the cake. The production costs are reported to be as low as $15 per barrel. More conservative estimates come in around $30 per barrel, but that is still half the cost of a barrel of oil today! Which brings us to the investment portion of this article.

  • In the USA  hard lobbying is now going on by investers and politicians for contracts and to have the new investements in their district.
    In October of 2006, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced an agreement with a team of companies to build one of the nation's first coal-to-liquid fuel facilities.

  • The technology is the Fischer-Tropsch process, used by Nazi-Germany during WWII and by the South-African Apartheids-regime during the sanctions.

  • Known names in the field are SASOL, SYNTROLEUM and RENTECH.

Keep in mind that new spectacular plane-concepts are not ready for the moment and will take at least 15 to 20 years to develop. In the mean time some people are planning to make some, euh....lots of money.

The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)
by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 12:49:16 PM EST
The Air Force isn't primarily motivated by the environmental concerns (though I hasten to observe that the AF is certainly the greenest arm of DoD.)

Cost is one issue, but the main factor is reduced dependence on foreign energy sources.  This is rational, from their POV.

DoD's long-range thinkers aren't as ignorant and ideology-bound as the Pentagon and White House leadership is.  They are also gaming scenarios and planning seriously for the societal and international disruptions that will result from rapid climate change.

We'd all prefer if the military footprint wasn't big enough to sway markets.  But if it has beneficial effects in this or other areas, that's great.

I signed in to focus on exactly what it turned out the comments did - Colman's first bullet. I fly on business once or twice a year.  Were the face-to-face interactions enjoyable and beneficial? Yes. Was anything accomplished that could not have been accomplished via teleconference or videoconference?  No. Is my experience generalizable?  Maybe not. But I would still maintain that there is a lot of unnecessary flying.  I think Colman nailed it when he referred to "status".

I would also say that the best way to implement bullet #1 is to implement bullet #3.  The blowback is that it would make non-business travel more expensive as well.

Selfishly, I admit that I have enjoyed reaching a point in life where I can easily afford to fly several times a year. I've been ennriched by the things I've experienced, and I've spent more time with my extended family than would otherwise have been possible.

However, I also admit to being a spoiled American...   I reflect on this frequently, as I turn on the tap, or open the refrigerator, or pick through the salad bar offerings spurning the less-than-perfect specimens.

If America had a, well, more European attitude toward vacation entitlement, there would be less pressure to get places in such a hurry, and more leisurely, carbon-friendly modes of travel might become the norm. Well, I can dream, can't I?

by OkieByAccident on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 04:17:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There's nothing so magic about jet kero that it can't be replaced.  This is not a big worry except on economics.  And since you can regularly find trans Atlantic air fares at about the same price that I first flew in 1978 (so 50%+ discount given inflation) I don't see how air transport is really at risk of collapse.

DERD 2494 (a British spec) is the predominant worldwide jet spec.  It's key points are a freeze pt of -44 C, Flash of 42C (IIRC) and a bunch of specs that weed out contaminants that either damage engine parts or make too much smoke.  US Jet A 40 has a slightly higher freeze pt of -40 F/C and a little worse on smoke pt as well.  That's because US refiners tend to have equipment geared toward making gasoline instead of mid distillates (FCCs) that makes the mid distillate pool crappier.  Lobbying works!

The jet turbines than eat this stuff couldn't care less if you fed them anything from light naphtha (lighter fluid) through regular diesel fuel.  The only considerations at 40,000 ft are engine life if you allow too much in the way of corrosive contaminants (eg sulfur/chlorides) or cold properties so that the oil doesn't set up at the cold temps of high altitudes.

Similar turbines power electrical generating stations using everything from nat gas to diesel.  Our island gets half its power from a jet turbine whose ancestor flew 707's around.

So the key is finding a high energy/volume replacement for jet fuel with good cold properties.  I'll bet it doesn't take that much in the way of catalytic modification of the molecules in biodiesel to make them sufficiently branched to have acceptable cold properties.  Not to mention coal liquifaction and shale retorting that produce perfectly acceptable hydrocarbon feed stocks for hydrocracking into jet.  Price may go up, but not enough to get people to give up air travel.

by HiD on Thu Mar 8th, 2007 at 10:22:31 PM EST
I disagree on one point Colman: you state hydrogen has not future. This holds for cars. But not for airplanes. Airplanes are exactly the only one use where hydrogen may have a future.

The reason is the following: hydrogen per se, as a gas or a cryo liquid has very good energy/weight, it's the energy/volume that is bad unless you compress it (and then the energy/weight becomes quite bad including canister).

Large gas reservoirs are too clumsy and dangerous (Hindenburg), so you need to keep it cool like -150°C at moderate pressure (to keep the can light), which is near impossible in a car because the energy cost of the cooling system eats up all of your fuel, as you have to keep it running even when the car is just parked...

But you have to consider that long distance airplanes fly at 9 to 12 000 m, where air temperature is -70°C, thus making heat entry much slower. Then a tank not much heavier than current kerosene tanks can passively hold your liquefied hydrogen for the duration of the flight (say 20 hours to be sure, we assume it's a slow blended wing design): with just a little pressure and thermal insulation, letting some evaporate to cool the rest (you extract this gas to feed into the reactor).

Although not heavier, the tank+fuel could be larger than today. Another argument for the very large wing-body or blended wings concepts.

Of course, you also need a new airport infrastructure and different procedures, possibly impacting passenger convenience: ground tanks will have to be actively cooled and/or very high pressure. And the planes will have to be filled up just before take-off.


by Pierre on Fri Mar 9th, 2007 at 05:29:15 AM EST
all well and good at elevation, but the tanks that are fine at -50 to -70 C are not going to cut it when you land in LA in summer.  You'd have to gas off like mad to get enough evaporative cooling to make this work.  

H2 is a masturbatory fantasy in my opinion for most transportation services.  It's a pig to store, expensive to manufacture and a pig to transport.  My bet is on batteries for cars, biodiesel/jet for the services that batteries can't handle.

by HiD on Fri Mar 9th, 2007 at 06:10:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Answer: you never have any H2 left in tank at landing. You take just what you need at take off. Add 10 extra tons of good old kerosen in a separate tank if destination if really congested (which will just never ever happen again after 2020).

Which means you always refill at every stop. No more touch and go. Total rethink of all hub concepts. Big hit to passenger convenience as I said.

It's not about business as usual. It's just that H2 could well be the most cost-effective way to keep flying a much smaller crowd than today, in a world of expensive/vanishing refined/synthetic liquid fuels.

I totally agree that H2 has absolutely no future of any kind in the car business, which will either go electric, or synfuel (liquids), or vanish...


by Pierre on Fri Mar 9th, 2007 at 07:12:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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