Learning from Nature Fuels Aerospace Innovation

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Imagine a trans-Atlantic flight in the future: you’re sitting on seats whose fabrics resist dirt, the way lotus flowers remain clean and dry in a wet and dirty environment. The plane’s exterior is covered with tiny ridges, like sharkskin, which reduce drag. The plane is part of a scheduled V-formation, which saves fuel.

Icarus donned man-made wings in Greek mythology. Leonardo DaVinci drew flying machines. “In the 21st century, we’re not just trying to emulate bird-flight, but trying to understand how birds are so successful,” says Norman Wood, an expert on aerodynamics and flow control at Airbus.

Flying bee

Imitating nature has a name: biomimicry. It has three aspects, Dr. Wood explains.

First is nature as a mentor. We observe how living things succeed and understand what they’re doing. “It’s the art of the possible,” Dr. Wood says. “If we want aerospace vehicles to improve, we can say, ‘Insects can do it—so why can’t we?’”

Second is nature as a model. “We can ask, ‘How do insects fly—and can we transfer their approach into aerospace vehicles?” he says.

Third is nature as a measure. Simple calculations show that bees shouldn’t be able to fly and yet they are extremely successful. “Using the techniques bees use to achieve flight, we can measure how successful we could be ultimately—and how much further we could take a technology if we were to be as efficient as nature,” Dr. Wood says.

Nature by definition is successful,” he says. “So it’s an extremely good benchmark. We’re now moving into a deeper investigation, known as biomimicry, understanding the details of what nature can achieve and using that to fuel our innovation.”

Nature by definition is successful Tweet: “Nature by definition is successful” – @Airbus learns from nature to fuel innovation: http://ctt.ec/f425O+ via @Dassault3DS #biomimicry”

Take sharkskin, which is covered with rough, dermal denticles (hard, tooth-like scales) that decrease drag. Transferring that technology on to aircraft would cut fuel-consumption and thus reduce emissions.

Shark skin

Airbus has developed an aerospace surface with “riblets” that resemble shark skin.

Small patches of sharkskin-like material are currently undergoing tests on Airbus aircraft in commercial service in Europe, to see how it stands up to rain, hail, cleaning, ground contamination and other challenges.

Birds are an obvious model for aerospace biomimicry. Hawks survive thanks to their ability to execute extreme maneuvers in woodlands, or over cliffs, in order to catch their prey. They do it by maneuvering at or very near to their “maximum lift” condition. For aircraft, maximum lift is the point at which they can no longer stay in straight and level flight and stall, experiencing a sudden decline in lift.

Hawk

Pilots, aircraft owners and makers are legally required to maintain a safety margin from that condition occurring.

Many birds fly near maximum lift by using feathers on the top of their wings to detect when the airflow over the wings reaches that condition. The bird has evolved a nervous system that enables it to quickly modify its wing shape to manage the flow near maximum lift to maintain safe flight and maximum performance.

Airbus is looking at how to use surfaces on the wing to replicate the control demonstrated by birds.

Can we react quickly enough to define how we can make small changes to the wing and not go beyond a safe condition?” says Dr. Wood. “Our aspiration would be that we create an aircraft in the future that has its own nervous system. A bird doesn’t think, ‘oh, I’m at maximum lift and I have to do this.’ It makes the change automatically.”

The result could allow lower approach and takeoff speeds, as well as lighter wings, saving weight and therefore fuel.

Not all biomimicry involves new technology. Migrating birds fly in V-shaped formations partly because birds behind the leader can save a lot of energy, by flying in its wake.

Geese in flight

Transferring that to aerospace was assumed to require that aircraft fly close together, presenting traffic control, piloting and safety concerns. However, “as we get more understanding as to how and why birds do it, we find that the flapping of their wings destabilizes the wake behind them. So they have to fly close together to gain benefit.”

Aircraft get thrust from engines, not from flapping their wings, so the wake is not so chaotic. “We have the luxury of having fixed-wing aircraft, a structure that allows the benefit to persist, sometimes for many miles downstream, to trailing aircraft,” he says.

NASA recently demonstrated a 5% to 10% fuel saving by flying aircraft in formation up to a kilometer apart. Such a gap eliminates many of the issues of having commercial aircraft flying close together.

Over 400 commercial flights cross the North Atlantic in each direction every day. If even half were arranged into formations, “the impact on fuel-burn on those routes could be significant,” Dr. Wood says. “With no change to aircraft, we can achieve fuel savings. It’s one example where we can potentially exceed the benefits produced by nature.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Solar Energy Prepares to Shine

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Solar energy has been the promise of the future for a long time now—the solar cell was invented in 1883. Yet it looks as if the coming decades will be when solar power truly finds its place in the sun.

Solar panels

There’s been a six-fold reduction in the cost of solar panels since 2008. The full implication of that isn’t as widely appreciated as it could be,” says Martin Green, professor at the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “Solar panels now are getting to the kind of cost that makes them interesting for more applications.”

Those future applications could see commercial and residential buildings clad in solar panels. Already, the Delta, a self-powered building in New York built by Voltaic Solaire, uses solar panels on two sides of the building, as well as other solar panels that act as awnings above the windows.

Eventually “we will make transparent or semitransparent windows that use some of the light to generate electricity and the rest to light the interior,” Dr. Green says.

Drones may use solar panels to allow them to stay perpetually in flight. Mainstream aviation could someday use solar panels to make hydrogen for fuel. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana are working on paint with nanoparticles that will convert sunshine to power and turn any surface into a solar panel.

“If electric vehicles take off the way they’re supposed to, solar power could be a range-extender,” Dr. Green says. A rechargeable electric vehicle could juice up its batteries any time it’s parked in the sunlight.

Meanwhile, there’s an electric-car charging station in Pflugerville, Texas, that uses a giant sail made by Pvillion, a New York maker of flexible solar panels.

Another solar technology could recharge electric cars in a flash. Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Germany, drives a fuel-cell car requiring hydrogen as a fuel. The Fraunhofer Institute has a charging station that converts solar power into hydrogen. A fill-up there takes only five minutes at 700 bar, to deliver three kilograms of hydrogen, which can power the car for 300 kilometers.

Photovoltaic panels keep getting more efficient—commercial panels are able to convert 20% of the sunshine that falls on them, up from 7% to 8% when the industry began. “I think we will [reach] 30% to 40% efficiency in 20 years,” Dr. Green says.

Greater efficiency means cheaper panels because they could be smaller, and glass and packaging account for a large part of the cost. The key material in photovoltaic panels is silicon, which is the second most abundant element on Earth after oxygen, and is nontoxic to boot.

Solar cellsThe silicon used in solar panels is in a crystalized form, which resembles that of diamonds, and are nearly as strong as the gems.

Diamonds are for ever and silicon is almost the same,” Prof. Weber says. “Silicon has a very, very long lifetime.”

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New technologies continue to be developed. There are efforts to use a multilayer structure, which is very efficient but costly. To reduce the cost, the panels are cut into 1,000 small cells, each about two millimeters square. These are placed under a big lens that focuses the light on them, but the cells must move along two axes to track the sun, Prof. Weber says.

Solar power has entered a virtuous circle, where technological advances have led to greater efficiency, which has brought down the cost, which has expanded the market and has generated interest in research and development for new solar technology, Prof. Weber says.

Solar electricity in Frankfurt now costs about €0.10 ($0.14) per kilowatt-hour, he says. In Africa, it can cost as little as six or seven cents per kwh.

By contrast, average residential electricity prices, including taxes, in 2012, were €0.26 per kwh in Germany and €0.19 on average for the 15 original members of the European Union, according to the European Residential Energy Price Report by VaasaETT, a global energy think tank based in Helsinki. Electricity from oil costs about €0.20 per kilowatt-hour.

Most people are not aware that solar electricity has a lower cost of production than for electricity from oil,” Prof. Weber says, adding: “In a decade or two, solar energy will cost just two to three cents per kilowatt-hour.”

For private homes in Australia, “it’s cheaper to install solar panels than to buy electricity from the power company,” Dr. Green says. It’s no wonder that one in eight homes in Australia is installing solar panels.

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Shopping centers also have discovered the benefits of solar power. Retail buildings consume power during the day—when tariffs tend to be the most expensive—yet that’s ideal for making the most of solar power, he says.

One of the drawbacks of solar power—that it’s available only during the day—could one day change as well. Not just through better battery technology, but by creating a global grid.

We can imagine a world that’s globally connected,” Dr. Green says. “We’ll be able to transmit electricity from wherever the sun is shining to where it’s needed.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Recycling Gets Smarter as Demand Grows and Technology Evolves

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Recycling gets smarterTo understand how recycling will evolve in the future, follow the money.

“The reason recycling happens is because you can make money. Nobody aspires to pick through somebody’s trash. They have to have an economic incentive to do it,” says Adam Minter, author of the book “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.” “Good intentions don’t turn old beer cans into new ones. If you want to have a sustainable recycling industry, you have to focus on the economic side of it.”

Recycling revenue in the European Union from seven main categories almost doubled to €60 billion from 2004 to 2008. Recycling revenue fell in 2009 along with the global economic slump as because prices for secondary materials fell but it has since recovered, according to Eurostat.

Recycling isn’t just about the environment—it’s about manufacturing. “The recycling industry is a raw-materials industry,” Mr. Minter says. “It competes with mines, forests, oil drillers.”

Indeed, improving technology now makes it possible to recycle an aluminum can using 95% less energy than to make a new one from raw material.

China is the biggest importer of waste for recycling. While China is a low-cost country, the picture is more complicated—after all, wages in China are about 10 times more than those in India, which imports less waste for recycling. The key is that China, as the world’s largest manufacturing nation, needs the raw materials.

Recycling follows manufacturing. If there isn’t demand for raw materials, recycling isn’t going to happen,” he says. “We’re entering an era of relative resource scarcity. Everything has gone up in price because there are more middle-class people in the world who want more resources. As raw materials become scarcer and more expensive, recycling will grow. If there’s value in something and it can be transported to a recycling plant, it’s being recycled now.”

Take Christmas tree lights, an example Mr. Minter details in his book and one that illustrates how recycling is likely to evolve in the future. The U.S. has many wire recyclers, who reprocess power lines and other kinds of wire, provided it contains at least 80% copper. “Anything below that, they’ll pass on,” Mr. Minter says. “Before China came along, a lot of that would go to a landfill. That includes Christmas tree lights, which are about 28% copper. They’re not as worthwhile to recycle.”

However, in the mid- to late 1980s, scrap yards in the U.S. began collecting Christmas tree lights and sent them to China, eventually exporting 20 million pounds of discarded strings of lights a year. At first, the garlands would be burned to eliminate the insulation and get to the copper. However, after 2007 the price of plastic started to escalate, driven by the price of oil.

Suddenly, it became attractive to recover the insulation. So recyclers changed their methods, chopping up the Christmas tree lights and using water to separate the heavier copper from the glass and plastic. The plastic is recycled into items like soles for bedroom slippers, Mr. Minter says. It’s also used to make new Christmas tree lights.

Developed countries tend to see themselves as dumpers of waste, with poorer countries as the dumpees. However,

Recycle sign

“nothing goes from the U.S. to the developing world to be dumped,” Mr. Minter says. “That electronic waste moving from the U.S. to China is being bought. Somebody does it to make money. The means they use to extract value from it might not be clean. But a lot of that stuff is still legal to dump in a landfill,” which isn’t an environmentally friendly solution either.

The generation of waste also is evolving. Members of the growing middle classes in emerging markets are buying and using technology. In 2012, China generated 7,253 metric kilotonnes of electronic waste, and India 2,751 metric kilotonnes; the U.S. produced 9,359 metric kilotonnes of electronic waste, according to the Solving the E-waste Problem Initiative, a global effort of United Nations organizations.

A discarded computer in the U.S. will be shredded, and magnets and other technology used to pull out what’s valuable—about 40% to 60% of the total. However, in China or other developing countries, hand labor will dissect that computer and pull out more than 90% of it for recycling, Mr. Minter says.

The search for raw materials in waste is likely to become ever more ingenious as demand grows and technology creates new possibilities.

Researchers are working on ways to break down thermosets, a kind of heat-resistant, chemically stable plastic that hasn’t been recyclable. And some companies are recycling plastic back into oil. Meanwhile, researchers in Poland have found a way to recover nickel from spent consumer batteries to be used for electrodes in new batteries.

There are constant improvements in the technology,” Mr. Minter says. “But recycling is not the panacea. It just extends the life of materials a little longer. Eventually you need new materials. If you care about the environment, reduce your consumption and extend the life of what you already have. Once you’ve done that, then recycle.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.



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