Aircraft

A sign of things to come?

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The general ‘dismissive’ view of the effect of climate change on us all is that it may get a bit warmer in the Summer and colder in the Winter  – but there is a much bigger issue for us all here;

We might have to get used to power blackouts and disrupted travel plans as the country struggles to cope with the long-term effects of climate change, a report for the government has warned.

Floods, rising temperatures and higher sea levels threaten the UK’s road, rail, water and energy networks between 2030 and 2100.

Far fetched?

If that warning was not sombre enough in a month when air, rail and road travel has been badly hit by the weather, large storms and changes in wind direction could threaten some of the country’s busiest ports and airports. That would mean the abandonment of coastal docks and increasing pressure for the building of new runways throughout southern Britain.

The independent report for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on how well prepared energy, transport and water infrastructure is to cope with climactic changes expected between 2030 and 2100 presents a challenging, even bleak, picture. It identifies a general lack of long-term foresight, with capital investment at present depending too much on short-term returns and businesses tending to look no further than six to 12 years ahead. The authors argue that social attitudes and behaviour need to change too.

The official UK climate projections published last year predicting hotter and drier summers, warmer and wetter winters, rising sea levels and more floods, storms and heatwaves, provide the basis for analysing many of the risks threatening vital infrastructure. But the report also warns that ports and airports could face as yet unquantified threats from changes in prevailing winds, although it admits evidence on which such predictions could be made is, as yet, scanty.

It says:

“Even with many changes, current levels of supply and infrastructure functionality may not be possible at reasonable cost. We need to ensure the general public understands the constraints and challenges. Customer expectations in the UK are high. Customers do not expect interruptions to supply, restrictions on use or loss of quality, yet they demand low costs.”

The study, which was started under the previous government, will feed into a cross-government project to identify what climate change will mean for key networks. The project also involves major power and water companies, airport, port and rail operators and motoring organisations.

The project makes clear a big and expensive programme of sea and flood defences will be necessary. (The coalition government has just slashed spending in this area, a decision critics have warned will prove a false economy). Some areas of eastern England are already under threat – the report also warns some existing quaysides may have to be made higher and more inland ports such as Goole, Yorkshire, 50 miles from the open sea developed.

This would be “an expensive and radical option” but might be necessary “if conditions deteriorate substantially”. It would mean abandoning billions of pounds of existing assets in “at risk” locations and could provoke a business and public outcry, the report concedes.

Plans for a third runway at Heathrow were dropped by the coalition government, but the report notes that runways at UK airports are aligned either east-west or southwest-northeast depending on the prevailing wind. Many only have a single runway or parallel runways, which means on days when there is a strong cross wind, there can be severe disruption. These airports could therefore be vulnerable to a change in prevailing wind direction.

On energy, the report suggests one alternative would be for every home to be able to use low-carbon electricity when available and gas (perhaps supplemented by local anaerobic biogas) when it was not. A gradual shift to renewable energy sources, such as sun, wind, waves and tides, which are dependent on climactic conditions for providing electricity, might make stability through a grid system difficult to guarantee.

Lots to think about – and likely to affect the current generation, not just future generations. It is time to take a much more serious look by us all!

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The beginning of the end for another ‘green fuel’?

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It took just 32 seconds to kill off the airship as a concept and the use of hydrogen that buoyed the Hindenburg, when it erupted in an inferno 73 years ago. More recently Hydrogen has been lauded as a ‘wonder fuel’ with great green credentials, but now it would appear that hydrogen is being dropped again by the aviation industry. But this time the promised “green” fuel for powering flights of the future has been quietly shelved rather than ‘dropped’ in favour of biofuels and more fossil fuel-sipping aviation.
Airbus' cryoplane

And while hydrogen as a potential “greener” fuel for foreseeable flights gets dumped worldwide, airlines and aircraft manufacturers are also jettisoning their once radical ideas for such hydrogen-burning, sci-fi-like, cryoplanes.

Should we be concerned? The aviation industry clearly is. Because whatever fuel becomes the main power for all tomorrow’s flights, the future of the passenger jet as we know it is doomed. Facing a fate shared by other fossil fuel guzzlers, the jet will have to find alternatives to burning kerosene if it is to survive beyond the middle of the next century. Which is when, according to the most optimistic figures, the Earth gives up its final barrel of oil.

It was hoped that hydrogen – whose volatility so spectacularly ended the potential of the airship when last used for flight – would provide the fuel for the next generation of passenger jets, or “cryoplanes”. Three times more efficient than oil but four times bulkier – even in its liquid state – hydrogen already powers several prototype cryoplanes around the world.

But despite the millions poured into research, the promised commercialisation of such aircraft has to come to nothing as hydrogen failed to prove itself any greener then other energy sources – predominantly on cost terms.

As world oil prices have been pegged at $70-85 per barrel, alternative fuels are simply not viable and can not compete economically. Hydrogen is not a cheap fuel to produce, but just 12 years ago, experts and much of the aircraft industry seemed bullish about hydrogen’s chances as the new super fuel. Generated from hydropower, liquid hydrogen they thought would be the ultimate non-polluting fuel source that, with some modification, be readily used by today’s aircraft.

Radical redesign of the world’s airline fleet was planned to carry the bulky liquified gas. The result would have been new-look cryo-jets reminiscent of Thunderbird 2, with short wings and a bulging fuselage containing the liquified gas. Millions of taxpayers’ money has been funnelled into projects that did not seemingly take on board the fact that hydrogen power would remain costly and polluting for some time to come. Starting back in 2000, Airbus was involved with the 26-month EC-funded Cryoplane Project to assess the feasibility of hydrogen, in its bid to develop a zero carbon-emissions aircraft of the future.

Researchers found that aircraft would require fuel tanks four times larger than today’s. Models showed that the larger exterior surface areas would increase energy consumption by well over a tenth, and overall operating costs by around 5%.

Despite the drawbacks, reactions from the air industry were positive, with Airbus and its partners Daimler-Benz Aerospace (whose car division is also using hydrogen) proposing a goal of replacing kerosene with hydrogen to run their engines by 2020. But for the aerospace giants, hydrogen’s appeal is now much diminished, and the emphasis seems to be on making fossil fuels go further.

Where Airbus, and the aviation industry as a whole, is devoting its research is into reducing consumption further and committing to developing what it calls greener synthetic kerosene and leaner planes and engines.

Hydrogen, nuclear-powered planes, solar and electric-powered commercial aircraft have all been shelved for the short to mid-term.

Aviation is growing at around 9% a year according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with greenhouse gas emissions from aviation currently accounting for approximately 3.5% of emissions from developed countries.

In addition, the impact of nitrogen oxide emissions and the impact of contrails are estimated to be about two to four times greater than those of CO2 alone.

The greening of the skies, it seems, is going to take much longer than expected..

Mobile phones or transatlantic flights – which is greener?

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The big thing these days is reducing your carbon footprint, and everyone is at it, both individuals and big corporates. As an example, Google has recently invested $5 billion on an offshore wind farm project in a bid to reduce the company’s carbon emissions. 

So what are the carbon footprints of the most popular gadgets and every-day technology used by us in our everyday lives? Some of these are fairly obvious as they have an obvious connection to an energy source (i.e. a computer) but others are less obvious – like making a search on Google or using your mobile!

1. Apple MacBook 2010

The MacBook 2010 produces 9g of CO2 per hour while the product is idle. The average 60 watt lightbulb produces 48.4g of CO2 per hour.

(Apple, which has a company footprint of 9.6 million metric tons, claims to have reduced the MacBook’s carbon emissions by 12 per cent in the last four years despite increasing the power of the machines.)

2. Google search

This is a scary one! Reports have suggested that 7g of CO2 is produced per Google search, making two searches roughly the equivalent of boiling a kettle (15g of CO2). However, there was a lot of controversy around these figures, which in fact derive from the power of the computers used to perform the searches. Google claim that actually a simple one-hit search produces only 0.2g of CO2. It was estimated in 2009 that more than 200 million Google searches are performed every day  – that’s 40  tonnes a day on Google’s figures or 1,400 tonnes on the other figure world-wide!

As green as it can get?

3. Mobile phone

This one amazed me – Every minute spent on a mobile phone is estimated to produce 57g CO2. And for those who talk an average of an hour a day (not difficult I would suggest), a year’s usage is equivalent to the same amount of emissions as flying from London to New York one way (125 million tonnes CO2).

In 2009 there were 2.7 billion mobile phones in use around the world, giving a total of 125 million tonnes of CO2 emissions were produced – making it one-quarter of a per cent of emissions worldwide. Using a landline phone uses one-third of the power it takes to make a call on a mobile phone.

I realise this is not really significant in overall terms but it should make us think about how to reduce our own carbon footprint – and perhaps will stop so many people complain about transatlantic flights!

Amazing flying!

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We are now well used to everything getting smaller and quicker, be it our PC’s, phones or gaming consoles. One area which has not ‘leapt forward’ to such a perceptible degree is probably aircraft. Yes we are getting more efficient jet engines, and weird composite constructions, but they all look the same and work in the same way! 

Today however we have a major step forward in ‘cool aeronautics’ – a solar  powered aircraft that has flown through the night! 

Solar Impulse in flight

 

The four-engine aircraft called Solar Impulse was piloted by Andre Borschberg, a former fighter jet pilot from Switzerland. The plane has 12,000 solar cells arranged on its 63m (207 ft) wingspan which collected enough energy to power the craft for the flight, the super-efficient solar cells and batteries also allow the craft to stay in the air after the Sun has set.   

During the flight the aircraft reached a height of 8,700 m (28,543 ft) and achieved a total flight time of 26 hours. It also landed with three hours power remaining in its batteries, far more than had been expected. It also set a record for the longest and highest flight recorded by a solar-powered plane.  

The flight is a major step toward the makers’ aim of circling the globe using the power of the Sun. The designers say that this proves that a plane can be kept in the air around the clock, it is the first time ever that a manned solar airplane has flown through the night, and is the first step to reaching the mythical state of  ‘perpetual flight’. 

The plan is to now build a new, more advanced, version of the plane, with the  aim of circumnavigating the globe by 2013. 

This is a long way from a practical ‘solar powered plane’ but is a major step forward in trying to produce a sustainable aircraft.

A good year for flying?

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In a year that has so far seen aviation badly affected by ash clouds, the economy and industrial unrest, it is good to find some ‘good news’ at least if you are a fan of classic aircraft!  

XH558 'The Spirit of Great Britain'

 

This year sees the 50th Birthday of the only remaining flying Avro Vulcan. I have blogged about it here previously and am a big fan, I am definitely looking forward to seeing her fly again this year. She has been named ‘The Spirit of Great Britain’  for this season to reflect all that she stands for in British history.  

To celebrate its 50th birthday there are to be 5 months of celebrations with 8 big events (558 – get it?), all of which hopefully will get her a step closer to managing to secure the big sponsorship she needs to keep flying for the forseeable future.  

The fact that XH558 is flying again this year is testament to the support the British public have put behind this old lady. Lets hope she sees another important birthday as a fully airworthy aircraft.  

In addition to this it has been reported this week that there is a proposal to try to get one of the other great British aircraft back into the air – none other than Concorde!  

As a child I remember going to Fairford Airbase (only a few miles from my home) to watch the test flights of Concorde 002, since then I have always had a soft spot for this fabulous aircraft.  

Up until recently the attempts to get a Concorde airworthy in the UK has been thwarted by British Airways who have been ‘far from helpful’ to any approaches. However an aircraft at the Le Bourget Air and Space Museum in France is currently being assessed to see if its Rolls Royce Olympus engines are capable of running again. If they are it may enable to airframe to be made airworthy again. The campaign is being organised between the British, ‘Save Concorde Group’ (SCG) and a French group ‘Olympus 593’. It is estimated the cost could be in the region of £15M to get the aircraft that last flew with Air France seven years ago back into service. No doubt the experience of the ‘Vulcan to the Sky’ campaign and its engineers and fund-raisers will prove invaluable to the groups.  

A future possibility?

 

 One possible outcome could be Concorde, the Red Arrows (and XH855?) flying over the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic games. How fantastic would that be!

A taste of things to come?

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Recent events have highlighted to us all the dependency we have on our airline industry, and how we could not live without it. Or could we?

There is no doubt that the volcanic ash cloud has caused havoc across Europe stopping many thousands of people from getting home. The media has been full of their stories of getting back without the aid of an aircraft. There have been some excellent tales, many becoming apparent ‘live’ via Twitter (the BBC F1 team being an example). Undoubtably this has caused a great deal of pain and cost to a large number of people, but how much have you heard from business about this?

I would suggest, not a lot! All of the supermarkets have today confirmed that they only get around 1% of their food via air freight, and most of that is fairly obscure food which could not be described as ‘British staple food’. As far as industry is concerned, yes there have been some issues. Nissan has had to stop production in Japan of three vehicle types due to a lack of air sensors from Ireland of all places!

I general though I would suggest that business can, and has for a while, managed a lot of its business via the web. Travel to meetings is less necessary these days because of this. The majority of people caught in the ash cloud problems are therefore it appears holiday makers. Air travel has got progressively cheaper of the past few decades, we now take long haul travel for granted. This was not the case 30 or 40 years ago, long haul was the preserve of the wealthy. People used to holiday closer to home or in Europe, travelling by car, train or boat (remember those?)

We are heading towards a time when for various reasons; CO2 emissions, fuel costs, fuel extinction etc – we will see a rise in travel costs by air. The airlines are already saying we have seen the end of budget flying – the good times are over! Perhaps what has happened over the last week is a wake up call to us all? I can see aircraft use becoming the preserve of the rich and for specialist air freight rather than something we all take for granted.

In reality the world has not ground to a halt due to the cloud, yes it has caused some problems, but equally it has highlighted some issues that need addressing to prepare us for the future. A future that is not as far away as we would like to imagine.

For the first time as a family we are looking at the possibility of driving to Southern Europe for our Summer holiday rather than flying. This time it may be an enforced decision, we have flights booked already but are looking at a ‘plan B’ for if the cloud either stays or comes back! However in future it may be that we would look at making this part of the holiday – who knows? The costs are not in fact that different – it’s mainly the time factor that is affected. Perhaps this is a slow down call for us all!

The next month will be interesting, both in terms of seeing if the cloud issue goes away, but also to see if it changes the plans of holiday planners. No one knows for example how long it will take the airlines to get back to ‘normal’ once they get the clearance to fly. Aircraft and crews are all over the place, and mostly in the wrong places! Also who is to say that we don’t get a month of clear skies and then the issue comes back again? Let’s face it the timing this time was awesome – Easter holidays! How long to the summer holidays?

Volcanic Ash

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I woke up this morning as all mornings to the relaxing tones of the Today Programme on Radio 4. I find this an excellent way of being dragged into the land of the living, plus it updates me on what is happening in the world.

This morning I awoke to hear that most UK air flights were cancelled or severely delayed. Why I thought? It must be due to a major incident? The first thought these days is some form of terrorist action – not a nice thought at 6.45 in the morning!

But no, it turns out that we have a large cloud of volcanic ash heading towards the North of Scotland! Now when I was learning to fly I do recall reading that flying into clouds of volcanic ash in jet aircraft especially was a very bad idea! It’s not actually the loss of visibility that is the biggest problem, but the damage the dust which is very sharp and abrasive can do to the engine (think pumice).

Apparently we have a ‘volcanic ash advisory service’ which is part of the Met Office, they have released details and charts mapping the cloud.

It will be interesting to see if the cloud moves South and affects the London airports. Manchester is closed already.

Once in a while we awake to a ‘once in a life time’ event – this is without doubt one of them!

UPDATE 9.30am It appears this is one of the few things that can actually derail the election campaign! Big hitters are having to re-arrange their visits North of the border.

UPDATE 10.30am All UK non emergency flights are grounded from noon until 18:00 today!

UPDATE 16th April 7.15am: This is quite unprecedented. All air traffic in the south of the UK at a minimum has been grounded until 7pm tonight. This is also subject to review, so may still be extended! Some flights may manage to get out of Western Scotland and Ireland later today if the cloud follows the route expected.

On the day after the first election debate who would have expected news about a cloud to be up at the top of the news as well!