A team led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has received Popular Mechanics magazine’s Breakthrough Innovator Award for designing a greener commercial aircraft of the future that could use 70 per cent less fuel than current airliners, while reducing noise and emissions.
The team, which also includes Pratt & Whitney and Aurora Flight Sciences, is looking at the potential application of Pratt & Whitney’s PurePower geared-turbofan technology as an integral part of the design for the eco-friendly narrowbody aircraft. The MIT-led team is being honored at Popular Mechanics’ Breakthrough Awards ceremony in New York on October 5. The team’s work is part of a $2.1 million NASA contract to deliver benefits for future single-aisle aircraft designs.
“It’s possible that in the not-too-distant future, highly efficient aircraft will be designed based on a fuselage shape that’s not round, as conventional aircraft are today, but incorporates two side-by-side cylinders that create an oval – or ‘double bubble’ – cross section,” says Alan Epstein, Pratt & Whitney’s vice president, technology & environment, who is an MIT professor emeritus. “It’s estimated that the advanced concept in airframe design could use significantly less fuel than the conventional shape while also reducing noise and emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx).”
The craft’s unique “double bubble” fuselage dispenses with the tube-and-wing structure of current airplanes, providing extra lift while reducing drag. Three engines are located on the upper rear of the fuselage. This will allow the engines to ingest slower-moving air, using less fuel than under-wing engines. The plane’s body and tail will shield the engines, reducing noise. A model of the aircraft is undergoing tests in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel.
The double-bubble concept’s in-service target is currently set for 2035, by which time commercial air travel in the U.S. is expected to have doubled. As the project proceeds, the technology required to make the concept a reality will be a system game-changer, according to Pratt & Whitney.
“This integrated approach to vehicle and engine will yield vastly improved efficiencies compared to today’s applications,” says Epstein. “Pratt & Whitney’s role on the MIT team strongly positions us to influence the technology that will define the future of air travel.”
The double-bubble narrowbody design was one of two that the team, led by faculty from MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, presented to NASA in April as part of a $2.1 million research contract to develop environmental and performance concepts that will help guide the agency’s aeronautics research over the next 25 years.
Known as “N+3” to denote three generations beyond today’s commercial transport fleet, the research program is aimed at identifying key technologies, such as advanced airframe configurations and propulsion systems, that will enable greener aircraft to take flight around 2035.
MIT was the only university to lead one of the six U.S. teams that won contracts from NASA in October 2008. Four teams — led by MIT, Boeing, GE Aviation and Northrop Grumman, respectively — studied concepts for subsonic (slower than the speed of sound) commercial aircraft, while teams led by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin studied concepts for supersonic (faster than the speed of sound) commercial aircraft.