Can planes be improved

If engine efficiency can be boosted only a tiny bit by technological progress, and if the shape of the plane has already been essentially perfected, then there is little that can be done about the dimensionless quantity. The transport efficiency is close to its physical limit. The aerodynamics community say that the shape of planes could be improved a little by a switch to blended-wing bodies, and that the drag coefficient could be reduced a little by laminar flow control, a technology that reduces the growth of turbulence over a wing by sucking a little air through small perforations in the surface (Braslow, 1999). Adding laminar flow control to existing planes would deliver a 15% improvement in drag coefficient, and the change of shape to blended-wing bodies is predicted to improve the drag coefficient by about 18% (Green, 2006). And equation (C.26) says that the transport cost is proportional to the square root of the drag coefficient, so improvements of Cd by 15% or 18% would improve transport cost by 7.5% and 9% respectively.

This gross transport cost is the energy cost of moving weight around, including the weight of the plane itself. To estimate the energy required to move freight by plane, per unit weight of freight, we need to divide by the fraction that is cargo. For example, if a full 747 freighter is about 1/3 cargo, then its transport cost is

0.45 g, or roughly 1.2kWh/ton-km. This is just a little bigger than the transport cost of a truck, which is 1 kWh/ton-km.

Figure C.10. "Fasten your cufflinks." A Bombardier Learjet 60XR carrying 8 passengers at 780 km/h has a transport cost of 150 kWh per 100 passenger-km. Photograph by Adrian Pingstone.

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