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25th Anniversary series: What nanotechnology means for the M4

November 4, 2015

Nanotechnology innovations applied to materials, biology, information technology, and cognitive sciences are progressing rapidly and interacting with more established fields such as mathematics, artificial intelligence, and environmental technologies. At the nano level, manipulation of matter approaches the ability to reshape the building blocks of life.

This will transform daily life, creating new products and services, enabling new human capabilities, and reshaping humanity’s relationship with nature. These advances are creating unprecedented capacities to manipulate natural systems and interconnect mechanical and digital systems[1].

One area of potential impact of lighter, stronger materials is airframes and engines.

Currently, much of the weight of an aircraft on take-off is fuel which is needed to transport the airframe, engine and payload (cargo and/or passengers).  Work is going on to develop new aircraft which use nanotechnology to change the current ratios, allowing new configurations to be economic.

Finnish aeronautical engineer Aki Suokas have designed a single-seat super-lightweight microlight aircraft, with the option for an all-electric power plant dubbed as FlyNano. The FlyNano has several distinctive features. The body of the plane is made of highly advanced carbon fiber composite, which is one of the principal rationale behind the plane remaining lightweight at about 70 kgs and can land and take off easily on water. Powered by the 20kw electrically powered engine, FlyNano’s true airspeed is about 140 kmh at 75% power with a theoretical operational distance of 70 km.

A calculation of the potential impact of nanotechnology materials on lowering the weight of airframes and hence on air traffic economics appeared in, in 2011. It suggested “Consider a simple cost analysis for the fuel consumption of a typical commercial aircraft for a nonstop flight from Los Angeles to New York. The total weight of a medium-range aircraft after takeoff is approximately 500,000 pounds, including the 40,000-gallon weight of fuel; that yields a gallons-per-pound ratio for this aircraft of 40,000/500,000, or 0.08 gallon/lb.

Assuming there is a 20 percent reduction in weight as a result of new nanoscale-assembled aluminum alloys or nanoparticle-reinforced composite materials, let us calculate the total monetary savings during the life of the aircraft:

[The gallon/lb. ratio (0.08)] x [The cost of jet fuel (typically $5 per gallon)] x
[The weight savings (500,000 pounds times 20 percent, or 100,000 pounds)] x
[The number of flights in the life of the plane (about 60,000)]

The savings is an astonishing $2.4 billion per plane.”

If we turn the issue round and ask – what does this mean for the next generation of aircraft?, we can see two diverging possibilities. One is that the cost savings turn into lower prices for passengers and freight using very large aircraft such as the Dreamliner. The other is to focus on smaller/mid-sized aircraft and extending their range cost-effectively.

Easyjet are currently experimenting with nano-coating for 12 of their planes, with supplier’s estimates that this could reduce fuel costs by 1-2%.

The planes that Easyjet use can smaller airports than large planes, and so link up centres with smaller population. But they are limited in range.

However, low cost small turbine engines may well revolutionize small aircraft design and capability in the next 20 years.

And Researchers at MIT, funded by NASA, have come up with a way to revolutionize aircraft design for the 21st century. If adopted, the designs would result in a drastic improvement in aircraft fuel consumption for subsonic planes, cutting it by 70%.

This uses a “double bubble” architecture that relies on a dual fuselage design — that is, two cylindrical structures placed side by side to make up the fuselage rather than a single tube-and-wing structure (such that a cross section would resemble two soap bubbles fused together). The design allows for a wider, shorter fuselage that should help passenger loading and unloading as well as increase seating capacity. But the real innovation is in the engine placement. The tail-mounted D series engines suck up the slower-moving air coming off the wake of the fuselage. This Boundary Layer Ingestion (BLI) technique allows less fuel to be burned while generating the same amount of thrust.

NASA envisions aggressive designs like the D series taking flight by 2035, when air traffic is expected to double from current levels.

So, with new designs, new materials to reduce the airframe weight, new low cost small turbines, could we see new planes able to do long haul flights cost effectively with fewer passengers than the wide body jets now in service?

This is an important question for building the infrastructure of hub airports and their surrounding land connections – these have a 50 year planning horizon (Heathrow was opened in May 1946—–). Will the pattern of air transport have changed by then, with fewer large planes requiring network hubs or megalopolises to feed them? Will the expected growth in air travel be accommodated at smaller airports handling point to point journeys, maybe using the Middle East Hubs for refuelling?

If so, the M4 may be able to cope with the road traffic into and out of Heathrow.

[1]  and

Written by Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow and CEO.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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