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Role of Government in Energy Innovation: Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator Project ‘Takes Off’

American Airlines Plane

Last month, Boeing launched its 2012 ecoDemonstrator Program, a flying test bed for new aviation innovations that increase fuel efficiency, reduce noise, and incorporate advanced materials to reduce flight travel’s environmental footprint. The project is a collaboration between Boeing, American Airlines, and the FAA’s Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise (CLEEN) program, and represents a forward-thinking public investment aimed at accelerating the development of low-carbon airline technologies. The ecoDemonstrator recently completed its first round of flight tests in Montana, during which the plane was flown using a ten percent biofuels mixture.

The ecoDemonstrator showcases five main technologies for the future of commercial flight on an American Airlines 737-800 model:

  • Adaptive trailing wing edges improve airflow during take-offs and landings, consequently increasing fuel efficiency and acting as the plane’s “feathers.”
  • Variable area fan nozzles improve fuel consumption by increasing the fan efficiency of both current and future engines by up to 20 percent.
  • Regenerative fuel cells safely demonstrate the technology’s applications for power provision and storage on commercial flights, although significant changes to the system’s size and weight will need to be considered before implementation.
  • Flight trajectory optimization enables flight crews to manage more fuel efficient flight routes with mobile devices (namely the iPad.)
  • Mixed blends of biofuels from several different feedstocks including vegetable oil and algae are used interchangeably with traditional petroleum jet fuel.

The CLEEN program is funded through the FAA’s NextGen Environmental Research – Aircraft Technologies, Fuels, and Metrics project, which was appropriated $16.1 million in FY2009, $26.5 million in FY2010, $20.1 million in FY2011, and $23.5 million in FY2012. Industry participants collaborate through a cost-sharing program, and to date the FAA has invested $21.4 million in support of Boeing’s development and demonstration projects. The FAA expects to spend a total of $125 million over the five-year agreement supporting developments by Boeing, as well as its other industry partners – GE, Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls-Royce. Technologies supported by the CLEEN program are expected to be ready for commercial application between 2015- 2018.

As a technology test bed, the ecoDemonstrator showcases the next steps for the integration of innovative energy developments for commercial airlines, while functionally serving as a data collection instrument for Boeing to further enhance the suite of technologies for actual flight. Even more significantly, the ecoDemonstrator presents an example of a well-formed partnership between government and industry to motivate innovation in a sector that desperately needs it to reduce its carbon emissions.

Originally posted on the Energy Innovation Tracker, a database capturing U.S. energy innovation R&D investment since FY2009. For additional analysis, keep an eye on the Tracker’s blog and follow the Tracker on Twitter: @energyrdtracker.

Photo: Flickr user BriYYZ

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