Thursday, October 4, 2012

Saving Fuel; A drop in the bucket at a time

I was reminded by an article in the Economist (September 15, 2012) that there is no silver bullet to solving the worlds energy and environmental needs, but rather a whole bunch of "all of the above" initiatives to chip away at the problems.  Here's an interesting example of chipping away at it, one gallon, or ton as the case may be, at a time.

Recall the last time you were on a jetliner anxious to embark on your journey or looking forward to getting home.  Did it seem like it took as long to taxi to and from the gate as the flight itself?  On average, you spent 34 minutes of your life with the wheels on the ground.  What does that mean to fuel consumption and pollution? 

 A modern jet engine is tremendously efficient - when it is slicing through the air 8 miles above the earth.  But when it's pushing a 450 ton Boeing 747 on the ground, not so good.  A 747 can consume a ton of fuel during the average 17 minute one way taxi and throw several tons of carbon dioxide into the air.  Not to mention the added noise around the airport and the risk of ingesting foreign debris into the engine. 

A ton of jet fuel (commercial jet fuel weighs about 6.6 pounds per gallon) is about 300 gallons.  Even worse mileage than a hummer!  The industry estimates it spends $7-8B on fuel every year taxiing between gates and runways.  If I did the math right, that's 7.5 million tons or 2.3 billion gallons of fuel per year, enough to power all the cars in the US for 6 days.  OK, jet fuel is not the same as gasoline but you get the picture.

IAI's TaxiBot
So here comes the TaxiBot, developed by Israel Aerospace Industries, that will scoop up the front wheels of the jetliner into a rotating turrent and deliver said jetliner to it's destination using about 5 gallons of fuel.  How efficient is that!  And pilots like the idea because they will control the movement of the aircraft with their nose wheel.  The Bot will have all the latest GPS to monitor where it is and what speed it can travel on a particular taxiway.

In case you're tempted to recommend just using the tow trucks sitting around all over the airport to move the planes, (as I was), consider this, the constant tugging on the nose gear is not a good thing.  Personally, I want my aircraft nosegear to live a long and stress free life. 

German airline Lufthansa will test the TaxiBot next March at Frankfurt Airport.  And other companies are working on similar fuel saving ideas, including the German Aerospace Centre testing  fuel cells to power electric motors built into the nose gear itself.  And don't forget the R&D, manufacturing and sales of these units that create jobs and commerce.

Does this solve the worlds energy needs and environmental concerns?  Certainly not; you could say it's barely a drop in the bucket.  But put enough drops in that bucket, and pretty soon, you may just have real progress. 

What are your favorite "all of the above" ideas?

Stewart McHie
Director, Master of Science in Business Analysis
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