Johannesburg - South African institutions and universities are at the forefront of an aviation revolution that will launch a new generation of planes that are going to radically change the way we fly.
In the future, passengers might find themselves travelling in aircraft that are see-through, fly in bird-like V formations and take off vertically.
Linden Birns, spokesman for Airbus Sub-Saharan, says South Africa has the skills, resources and technology that are recognised internationally and that it intends growing its relationship with Airbus into a long-term one.
Already Aerosud, a local Airbus subsidiary, has been manufacturing components for its parent company for more than four years.
Airbus and South Africa’s National Aerospace Centre have a R1-million annual programme that supports local research at higher education institutions in fields that are beneficial to Airbus and South African aerospace capabilities.
The Airbus concept plane was launched in 2010, but late last year South Africa became more involved with the introduction of 12 bursaries that have been granted to assist students from the universities of Stellenbosch, Wits and Cape Town, and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
The bursaries will allow students to work on real-world aviation problems and allow them to interact with Airbus experts throughout the world through internships.
One of these aviation problems that Airbus has partnered with the CSIR to try to solve is to test the application of a titanium power-based additive layer manufacturing (ALM) in the fabrication of large and complex aerospace components.
ALM involves forming an object from powder which is arranged in layers and fused by high-speed lasers.
It is a process completely devoid of bulk machining, cutting and welding, thereby minimising waste and optimising the manufacturing process. It is similar to printing in 3D.
Since 2010, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been working with Airbus to study the potential benefits and impact of formation flying and explore whether this could be applied to passenger services to reduce fuel burning.
This concept involves biomimicry, copying from nature.
Large birds benefit from co-operative flying to save energy, giving them increased range. When they fly in formation, aircraft behind the lead plane experience less drag.
If these benefits could safely be harnessed, it could reduce the aviation industry’s consumption of fossil fuels.
Grouping together aircraft flying similar routes, for example from Europe to Africa, could, in theory, provide a reduction in fuel burn and emissions. UCT is focusing on the effects of atmospheric turbulence on fuel saving and crew and passenger comfort.
The plane of the future could be in the air as soon as 2030, if advancements continue at the current pace.
They include ultra-light, slim and U-shaped wings made of carbon fibre, all aimed at providing eco-efficiency and lower fuel consumption. Added benefits will include a significant cut in emissions, less noise and greater comfort.
Dr Franz-Josef Kirschfink, head of Lufthansa Technik, which is spearheading the project, said saving fuel on flying was critical for the future of aviation.
He told The Star: “There is a limit to the fuel left on Earth and we have to come up with fuel-saving measures. At Lufthansa Technik we have several plans already in place, including what appear to be very minor adjustments to parts, but which result in huge fuel savings.
“The immediate challenge for aviation is the environment. Since 1960, commercial airliners have cut their fuel consumption and therefore their carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent, but it is not enough.
“It is essential for aviation to continue to find even more solutions,” he said.
The coming generations will eventually have to give up on fossil fuels and move onto new ecologically sound alter natives such as hydrogen, energy harvesting, solar power and biofuels.
“We believe that it is neither responsible nor sustainable to develop biofuels that compete with food resources, so we are focusing on algae,” Kirschfink said. “If you give certain algae seawater, sun and carbon, they start growing and become a biomass plant. The fact that the biomass plant thrives on carbon dioxide thereby reduces its carbon footprint during its lifecycle of growth.
“These plants give out oils from which they can make a fuel very similar to present-day kerosene. As they don’t require fresh water or land used by agriculture, these biofuels could well be one of the future possibilities for aviation.”
Already tests have been done flying aircraft over six months from Hamburg to Frankfurt, with one engine of the plane using jet fuel and the other biofuel.
The results were good and showed no technical problems, no unusual wear and tear, no residual in fuel filters, and no deposit in tanks and tubes, meaning that a 50/50 blend works well.
“There are logistical problems such as finding algae farms and farmers, and setting up mills to extract the fuel, but we have people, universities and other institutions all over the world researching this,” Kirschfink said.
The concept plane, launched in 2010, is aimed at stimulating young people from all over the world to engage with Airbus so that it can continue to share the benefits of air transport while also looking at the environment.
The interiors of plane are also in for a major upgrade. Radical ideas are being investigated, such as interiors being made from ecological materials that change shape for a snug fit.
The cabins will have walls that become see-through at the touch of a button, allowing 360-degree views of the world below, with holographic projections of virtual decors that will allow travellers to transform their private cabins into offices, bedrooms or Zen gardens.
Another plan to avoid congestion at airports is for planes to take off vertically. This would be done by raising them into the air with a concertina-like lift.
NEW SOURCES OF FUEL:
that can be grown into the desired shape.