Air travel is often hailed as the safest form of travel, and there is something to be said for getting where you need to go in a hurry. Of course, to cruise six miles or more above the Earth going hundreds of miles per hour requires highly combustible jet fuel. Lots and lots of it. A Boeing 747-8 can carry up to 64,000 gallons of jet fuel and, depending on how fast it flies, can burn through over three-thousand gallons of fuel per hour.
No matter what you say about efficiency-per-passenger, that is a whole lotta jet fuel. Everybody knows it, including NASA, which enlisted six research teams to design a more efficient aircraft. A team led by researchers at MIT came up with a plane they call the “double bubble” that is supposed to reduce fuel consumption by 70%.
The NASA initiative, called N+3, gave grants to six teams to design different, more fuel-efficient planes for future air travel. The number of flights in the world is set to double in the next few decades, so reducing fuel consumption is going to be ever more important. Plus, using less fuel will undoubtedly save consumers money, and, of course, there will be fewer emissions. While some teams worked on supersonic planes, MIT (the only university team) and three other groups worked on subsonic planes.
It is worth noting that today’s aircraft are far more fuel efficiency than their older cousins. It’s simple economics: jet fuel is not cheap, so naturally you want a plane that uses as little as possible. But planes still pretty much look like planes. The MIT plane looks familiar-yet-different. The designers essentially took two airplane fuselages and fused them together. They also moved the engines from the wings to the rear of the plane, where the engines can take in slower-moving air in the wake of the fuselage, which uses less fuel for the same amount of thrust.
The double bubble plane is designed to replaced the 737 for domestic flights, but MIT designed a plane for international flights too (above). The wide hybrid wing aircraft eliminates the need for a tail by having a wide nose that provides plenty of uplift. The wing and double bubble wouldn’t be ready before 2035, but some of the double bubble design could be integrated into current aircraft and save up to 50% more fuel almost overnight. There are drawbacks to the design, like a 10% lower overall speed, and increased engine stress at the rear of the plane. But would you mind an extra hour of flying if it meant your tickets cost a whole lot less?