NASA Glenn Scientists Work Toward Hybrid Passenger Jets

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By ideastream’s Brian Bull

NASA Glenn is working on a project to incorporate hybrid engine technology normally used in cars and into large passenger jets. 

But there will be a significant delay before takeoff.

Picture a 737 jet airliner with electric engines and a fan on the tail end, and you’ll have a basic concept of what NASA’s Cleveland facility is trying to accomplish. 

Ralph Jansen is an engineer on the hybrid-gas electric project.  He says the goal is to reduce the amount of fuel, emissions, and noise from jet planes with the same design and engineering elements found in cars like Toyota’s Prius.

“So here at NASA, we’re taking this technology and doing it for airplanes,” says Jansen, “which is particularly difficult because you need to make the electric parts very light and very efficient. We’re looking 20 to 30 years out to really get to full 737 aircraft size.” 

Which means new materials and alloys to help make sturdier but lighter aircraft.

Jansen and other researchers add that there’s competition from overseas. NASA Glenn Engineer Cheryl Bowman says the European Union is investing heavily in hybrid aircraft technology.

“It is a global interest, there are conferences in Europe on a routine basis, focusing on electrification of vehicles.”

Bowman says the EU is investing in companies like Rolls-Royce in Great Britain and AirBus in France, to develop their hybrid aircraft. 

Bowman adds there currently are hybrid aircraft…but only small ones that carry one to two people. 

“But I think we would like to see larger experimental vehicles in the 10-passenger range maybe in the next decade,” says Bowman.  “Our goal is to do technology that impacts what we call single-aisle transport -- like a 737 aircraft -- because right now those are the ones that have the highest usage, the highest fuel-burn, so the highest economic impact on the country as a whole.”

Researchers at NASA’s Cleveland facility say the technology will provide better fuel efficiency, less noise pollution, fewer emissions, and less drag in flight.

If computer models are on target, hybrid technology could reduce fuel consumption by about 12 percent. 

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