NASA Is Making Progress Toward Hybrid-Powered Airplanes

Jan 9, 2016

NASA’s endeavors inside the atmosphere don’t get nearly as much attention as their off-world missions, but they could have a big impact on our planet.

Researchers at the NASA Glenn Research Center are working on developing a hybrid plane that will function kind of like a hybrid car, relying on both fossil fuels and electricity to power itself through the sky. Scientists are working on all components of the hybrid system, developing new hybrid electric engines, but also working to improve small pieces, like insulation around the wiring in the aircraft.

“These systems use electric motors and generators that work together with turbine engines to distribute power throughout the aircraft in order to reduce drag for a given amount of fuel burned,” Amy Jankovsky, a NASA engineer said. “Part of our research is developing the lightweight machinery and electrical systems that will be required to make these systems possible.”

The researchers think that these advances could make flying up to 30 percent more fuel efficient. Considering that commercial airlines in the United States used over 8.9 billion gallons of fuel last year, that’s a huge chunk of gas saved, and a large reduction in carbon emissions.

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18 comments on “NASA Is Making Progress Toward Hybrid-Powered Airplanes

  • @OP – The researchers think that these advances could make flying up to 30 percent more fuel efficient. Considering that commercial airlines in the United States used over 8.9 billion gallons of fuel last year, that’s a huge chunk of gas saved, and a large reduction in carbon emissions.

    Or for a lower carbon foot-print, a larger scale development of the hydrogen burning Sabre engine in a hypersonic aircraft switching from jet engine mode to rocket mode, could be an alternative.
    SABRE engines can be configured specifically for space access, operating as a jet in the atmosphere to accelerate up to a speed of Mach 5.5 and then transitioning to rocket mode to accelerate beyond the atmosphere to orbital velocity, Mach 25.

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  • This appears to be in part an implementation of the idea of pumped air flow at the leading edge of aerofoils to detach the fast moving air from intimate laminar contact with the surface, thus bringing down friction. The pumped air forms a virtual surface of a more slippery nature. Dynamic adaptive pumping aids flight control directly and reduces or eliminates the need for moving control surfaces with their own significant lossiness.

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  • 0BZEN
    Jan 9, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    Great! All they need is a nuclear reactor on that thing.

    It’s been tried on some spacecraft!
    Fission power sources have been used mainly by Russia, but new and more powerful designs are under development in both the USA and Russia.

    After a gap of several years, there is a revival of interest in the use of nuclear fission power for space missions.

    While Russia has used over 30 fission reactors in space, the USA has flown only one – the SNAP-10A (System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) in 1965.

    Early on, from 1959-73 there was a US nuclear rocket programme – Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) – which was focused on nuclear power replacing chemical rockets for the latter stages of launches. NERVA used graphite-core reactors heating hydrogen and expelling it through a nozzle. Some 20 engines were tested in Nevada and yielded thrust up to more than half that of the space shuttle launchers. Since then, “nuclear rockets” have been about space propulsion, not launches. The successor to NERVA is today’s nuclear thermal rocket (NTR).

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  • Thanks phil; you seem to be generally up to speed on developments; if you have no objections, I’d be interested to know what your background is please.

    We are indeed in deep doo doo, Dan, but that doen’t mean we can’t extricate ourselves from it; we are a very resourcefull lot after all.

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  • NASA’s hybrid proposal looks less ambitious but also has three engines, although I can’t decide which of them look to be electric. Perhaps all three, with embedded jet turbines.

    Electric fans instead of jet turbines promise efficiency gains. Their graphic depicts a hybrid electric design, perhaps with boundary layer control as Phil suggested, but the main purpose is to research future propulsion systems. Kerosene powered turbines are very mature now, although the very latest geared fan turbines promise about 15% extra efficiency, however any further gains are highly unlikely.

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  • Gas turbine/electric machine co-development with electic machines being on the same shafts with little or no gearbox interface has been made possible by amorphous metal laminations developed in the nineties (in part by NASA, Allied Steel, Sumitomo and Vacuumschmelze Siemens)). These magnetic parts permit operation of genertors and motors at very high rotational speed without losing efficiency. Eliminating gearbox interfaces has made their use far more reliable, efficient and light weight.

    Boundary layer control demanded more electrical power than conventional jet aeroplanes produced, and if its reliable production could be got, why not add in vectoring thrust to further eliminate control surfaces, their losses and unreliability? Enough vectoring thrust and some stored energy and the plane could be launched/ landed quietly.

    (Further guesses, though we did actually do quite a lot of conceptual development work with amorphous steel, for vehicle and missile power systems.)

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  • I’d be interested to know what your background is please.

    Omitting much detail…

    As a child I did electronics and chemistry and schoolwork. Then I became an actor for 10 to 15 years, during which I learned a little of how mysterious humans worked, got a physics degree, and became a photography and print lecturer to be able to fund the theatre work. After that, mostly at the insistence of my bank manager, I became an inventor to carry on working in small super-creative teams, like I fell in love with whilst acting. My/our companies worked for ourselves but often global clients variously in power transmission and generation, power processing/control, transportation (Detroit, Toulouse, railways) fighter jet training simulation, many sonar innovations (ocean floor mapping, ultrasonic imaging in zero light), standards work, innovative lighting of ALL sorts, latterly horticulture and development of circular economy businesses. For the last 15 years all endeavours have been eco-directed.

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  • Phil, my first cartoon incorporates all the features you mentioned, which is why I posted it. Electrically blown wings, including vectored thrust, distinguish it from NASA’s device.

    The NASA program won’t address our urgent climate crisis because potential results are still decades away. The plane depicted is a marketing department rendition which could never fly, owing to fundamental design flaws which Reckless Monkey will likely verify when he arrives. Aero engineers had no obvious input because the wings are wrongly positioned, being at least 10-20 meters too far forward to achieve balance. Clearly this is a nascent program at this stage, or just a fanciful idea.

    Your speculation is very interesting and probably correct in the longer term I reckon, yet ironically the next generation of engines DO incorporate a gearbox where none existed before. Pratt & Whitney have spent many years and over $10 billion developing their new jet engine with a gearbox, purportedly 15% more efficient than previous designs.

    If P&W geared turbofans prove reliable, RR and GE will ramp up their own developments of similar design. Such engines will hopefully power the next generation of airliners.

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  • Possibly not. A old study on a prior generations of similar aircraft concluded that dumping water vapor at high altitude is apparently really bad for the environment. Possibly worse than CO2 dumping at lower altitude.

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  • The animation you posted was one from a well known line of Russian nonsense designs. This particular one is a stealthy supersonic heavy transport aircraft. Generally speaking that’s a ‘three options, pick two’ combination.

    The difference is that the NASA design is not complete nonsense.

    The NASA design is also a stepping stone to the ring turbine design. Turbines get more efficient the wider they get, but as they get wider the inner portion gets more and more useless, since it doesn’t generate thrust. The obvious solution is to wrap a hollow turbine around the fuselage, but that is difficult for engineering reasons.

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  • Both animations are simply artists renditions. The Russian one isn’t suitable for supersonic flight however, despite the hype and paranoia it provoked. The sweep of the wings show it to be intended to fly at subsonic speeds, but I posted it to show Phil how his electrically blown wings with thrust vectoring is incorporated in the design. Fanciful but plausible.

    The NASA design, or this rendition of it, is the less plausible design actually. Someone has drawn the wings in the wrong place. It would tip onto its tail on the ground, and certainly couldn’t manage to fly.

    I’m not sure where you got your ideas about turbines. Perhaps from a science fiction comic?
    The inner portion of a jet turbine is essential actually, for generating the power to drive the large fan.

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