How a concept for a hybrid airplane could purify the air and save lives

·1-min read
Nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from aircraft are a major health concern.

Adapting to aeronautics what is already being done in the automobile industry -- ie, thinking about hybrid engines -- would considerably reduce air pollution and the diseases that result from it. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have come up with a new type of hybrid-electric propulsion capable of eliminating up to 95% of the nitrogen oxides released into the air by aircraft.

While road traffic emits a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2), air transport is a carrier of fine particulate pollution, especially that related to nitrogen oxides (NOx). When flying, aircraft therefore emit a constant flow of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, with devastating effects. For humans, they can be responsible for asthma, respiratory diseases and cardiovascular disorders. It has been estimated that pollution from aviation alone causes about 16,000 deaths worldwide each year.

Engineers at MIT have developed an aircraft engine concept that they believe would eliminate up to 95% of these NOx emissions and, as a direct result, would also reduce the number of associated fatalities by 92%. This concept is obviously inspired by what is already being done in the automotive industry.

With this new "hybrid-electric" design, the conventional gas turbine would be connected to a generator here, all in the aircraft's hold. This generator would then supply electricity to the propellers or the fans placed in the wing. The emissions produced by the gas turbine would be filtered before being ejected into the atmosphere.

These same researchers calculate that if such a hybrid system were implemented on a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320, it would require only about 0.6% more fuel to fly the aircraft.