NASA adds five novel ideas to its initiative to cut planes' fuel usage in half

Airline passengers will equate to about half of the global population in 2016, as some 3.6 billion passengers are forecast to take to the skies. And these figures are only expected to grow. The future of air travel may be busier, but NASA wants to make it cleaner, and is launching two-year research programs to figure out how.

Is failure an option? It depends on your definition of failure.

The initiative will study five green technology ideas selected during NASA’s Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program, adding to the six “wild ideas” the agency’s aerospace team selected last year. NASA aims to to cut fuel use in half, decrease harmful emissions by 75 percent, and build quieter aircraft.

“There definitely was an emphasis in our selections on bringing forward activities that addressed a NASA aeronautics goal to reduce the carbon footprint of aviation during the 21st century,” Doug Rohn, program manager, said in a NASA press release.

“Is failure an option?” Rohn asked. “It depends on your definition of failure. We’re going to ask the questions and see if these ideas are feasible or not. A successful feasibility assessment may determine the concept won’t work.”

Here are the five new concepts they’ll begin investigating.

Alternative fuel cells: Since the 1960s, NASA has used hydrogen-oxygen electric fuel cells for large aircraft, which require complex and expensive maintenance and containment. The agency will now explore whether smaller, more energy efficient fuel cells can power an electrically propelled general aviation vehicle.

3D printers to increase electric motor output: In a study focused on electric aircraft, NASA scientists will attempt to increase electrical motors’ power density — their power compared to their size and mass. To aid in this task, the researchers will turn to 3D, printing with the aim to manufacture lighter, smaller parts.

Lithium-air batteries for energy storage: Today’s batteries pose a big problem for electric-powered aircraft, which demand more energy than most batteries can store, but Lithium-Air batteries may offer a possible solution, according to NASA. Theoretically. Lithium-Air batteries have the highest storage capacity but, in reality, they’re virtually useless without the an ultrastable electrolyte material that won’t decompose like standard electrolytes. NASA hopes to fund the creation of this material.

New shape-shifting aircraft wings: Many aircraft can already change the shape of their wings before and after takeoff, but NASA wants to investigate the concept further, designing wings to fold up and down in order to act as rudders during takeoff and landing. However, the agency will need to investigate what materials and mechanisms will be best for the transformation.

Lightweight material for form-fitting antennae: In order to increase how far drones can travel, NASA researchers will look to develop form-fitting antennae that can communicate with satellites, freeing drones and operators from their dependence on radio signals.