Is the future of aviation dependent upon the availability of fossil fuel? The answer is a clear-cut yes and no? For those few people that are paying attention to the concept of “peak oil”—a subject that has resulted in the publication of many books; but read by few—the diminishing availability will not be bell-curve-like. It will be more analogous to a large boulder being nudged over the cliff. It will leave the Hummer drivers agape in awe with jaw-dropping amazement and disillusionment. It will make the Amish and Mennonite folks appear to be extremely prescient as the value of horses skyrockets. Enjoy the relatively inexpensive air travel while you can. Ticket prices can only increase and the rate of increase might be profound.
But fret not, you addicted jet-setters there is hope on the horizon. Aviation is now so imbedded in the culture of the entire planet that the visionary creative engineers are coming out of the woodwork with numerous marginally plausible plans and a few that will probably be effective in keeping aviation alive. While I promote enthusiasm for the future of aviation, even after the complete exhaustion of fossil fuels, I must issue a caveat. There will be no more $169 roundtrip flights from the Northeast United States to Florida. Air travel will be primarily for the well-to-do. Those people at the top of the food chain will still have their private jets but their aircraft will be powered by one of the following: biofuels, electricity from batteries, and solar power. Nuclear powered aircraft and/or hydrogen cell powered aircraft are very unlikely unless the engineers engage in some quantum leaps forward in dealing with the shortcomings of these two sources.
Based on the most recent advances in the development of solar power for airplanes it appears that it will be quite feasible for smaller, four-seater type air machines. The current technology requires extremely large-winged aircraft for two or four people maximum. For commercial operations as we know it, there is very little likihood of electric-solar powered aircraft becoming viable for the operation of aircraft to haul hundreds of people. The bright side is there would be very little night flying and fewer pilots sleeping in the cockpit. The recent Sun ‘N Fun Air Show hosted a workshop with the moniker: International Workshop for Electric Standardization. The Oshkosh Air Show in July will be buzzing with the subject of alternative fuels.
The biofuels such as ethanol from corn has been a bust for autos and it will not solve the jet fuel and avgas problem. The use of items such as “switch-grass” and other non-consumable wild grasses and weeds has been discussed and researched. It now appears that the best source of fuel to replace jet fuel and avgas is an algae-based product. In a recent speech in Miami, President Obama stated that we could derive up to 17% of our fuel needs fuels from algae. Twenty-four million dollars in grants for this research has been issued. As usual, there is a caveat. It takes 350 gallons of water to produce one gallon of algae fuel. It is almost a certainty that man’s instinctual enthrallment with flying will result in creative and innovative people stepping forward to solve the problem. The changes in air travel in the next ten years will be very interesting!
This blog is prepared by Allen Morris/aka Ace Abbot, the author of The Rogue Aviator: in the back alleys of aviation; www.therogueaviator.com