Will we be able to fly from Paris to New York in less than an hour without exacerbating the heat? | technology

Passenger aircraft have traditionally been designed with efficiency and safety in mind, although climate neutrality is increasingly being taken into consideration. So the question arises: will we be able to fly from Paris to New York in less than an hour without exacerbating global warming?

This is what the European project STRATOFLY proposes: a Mach 8 aircraft, that is, a hypersonic aircraft that can reach a speed of at least 9,500 kilometers per hour, or almost eight times the speed of sound. The STRATOFLY project was implemented between 2018 and 2021, and in turn built on three previous European research projects on the same topic. “It won’t be easy,” says Nicole Viola, Stratofly coordinator and professor at the Polytechnic of Turin (Italy). “We may not be ready for Mach 8 yet, but I’m sure I’ll be able to see the hypersonic aircraft come to life.”

Stratofly has designed a computer-modeled prototype of a hydrogen-powered hypersonic aircraft. The project focused on innovative ways to operate an aircraft capable of carrying 300 passengers.

Meanwhile, in the European Union, political interest in supersonic passenger air transportation has waned, mainly due to environmental issues, to which must be added the noise and polluting emissions that cause climate change. Recent EU legislative initiatives, including a new aviation emissions reduction law, have highlighted Europe’s political uncertainties, as they limit incentives for supersonic commercial flights.

However, in the fields of civil aviation and research, ambitious ideas continue to emerge to develop faster and cleaner aircraft. Although it may take several decades for these technologies to be operational, scientists believe it is important to dream big.

Not so fast

The STRATOFLY design posed many technological difficulties. However, one of the biggest hurdles was not really creating an aircraft that could fly fast, but designing an aircraft that could also fly slowly. “The problem is not in the hypersonic stage,” Viola explains.

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The hypersonic plane dreamed up by Viola and her colleagues must not only fly at high speeds, but also take off and land at much slower speeds. This complicates the design stage. An engine capable of supersonic speeds, for example, isn’t the best choice for lower speeds. The hypersonic engine also required a large intake to “suck in” the air mixed with hydrogen. “The faster you go, the more air is sucked in,” says Viola. But at lower speeds, the engine needs less air intake, forcing the scientists to find a compromise in the design.

The ninety-four-meter aircraft has a large air intake at the front, with sliding doors to regulate the air intake. From takeoff to speeds of up to 5,000 kilometers per hour, six smaller engines do all the work. Above this speed, a massive engine running the length of the tail propels the plane forward. Beyond pure design issues, STRATOFLY has demonstrated the advantages of using liquid hydrogen rather than hydrocarbons as an aviation fuel.

Back to the future

The STRATOFLY proposal is just a concept designed to show what hypersonic aircraft would look like. It allows researchers to test and reflect on new technologies that would take decades to successfully materialize.

Today, however, the aviation industry can return to supersonic aircraft such as the famous Concorde, which was around for more than thirty years before it was retired in 2003. It was used by Air France and British Airways, and owes its notoriety especially to the Paris- New York, London and New York routes, and the one-way trip takes between three and three and a half hours.

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The American company Boom Aerospace has already signed supersonic design contracts with United Airlines and American Airlines. Hypersonic flight is already attracting attention far beyond civil aviation. The space industry targets this technology to build ships that can take off like airplanes; It is a development that could reduce the need to launch expensive missiles. “Hypersonics is somewhere between flight and space,” says Viola. “So, eventually, we’ll see how one camp embraces this technology.”

Clean the environment

Regardless of whether such high-speed flights are possible, making jet fuel cleaner is a growing priority for the EU. Today, aviation accounts for approximately 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Hydrogen could be the answer, according to Professor Bobby Sethi of Cranfield University in the UK. “We’ve been looking for hydrogen in airplanes for a long time,” Sethi explains. “However, costs dampened enthusiasm for a long time, although its adoption is a matter of time, not conditional.” He coordinated the European ENABLEH2 project, which ended in November last year after four years of studying the potential of hydrogen in aviation.

Hydrogen offers many advantages, according to Sethi. It is one of the most abundant elements on Earth, and if it was created using renewable energy, it does not emit carbon dioxide. Additionally, ENABLEH2’s research showed that hydrogen combustion systems would emit less nitrogen oxides, another greenhouse gas, than kerosene.

On the other hand, hydrogen-powered aircraft can travel longer distances than electric aircraft, which can be used for short and medium-haul flights.

transition paths

But costs should not be neglected. Hydrogen behaves differently than traditional jet fuel, which means redesigning planes and some airports, a transition that could take 20 to 30 years, says Sethi.

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“We could technically re-engineer an existing aircraft, such as the Airbus A380, to run on hydrogen,” he says. But hydrogen tanks must be installed on board. We can’t store fuel in the wings like we can today, so this model isn’t very competitive with regular or sustainable jet fuel.”

For this reason, most forecasts envision an interim period in which industry can use sustainable alternative aviation fuels (SAFs), which are typically made from biomass or waste and produce less carbon dioxide over life cycle time than conventional types.

According to Sethi, it would be better to “focus on carbon sequestration from aviation emissions in the interim and invest aggressively in hydrogen to reduce transition time”. Whatever path is taken, the key to Sethi is the long-term and sustainable future of the industry. “Flying has enormous social and economic benefits,” he says. “It has greatly reduced transportation time around the world and boosted economic growth thanks to, for example, tourism. We cannot allow it to be destroyed.”

The research described in this article was supported by European Union funds. The article was originally published in horizonEuropean Union journal of research and innovation.

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