Last week in Montreal, national representatives at the International Civil Aviation Organization, representing the entire aviation industry, signed a deal to cut CO2 emissions. The main goal of this agreement is to offset new emissions after 2020. To shed some light on the role that aviation plays in climate change and the energy sector as a whole, we interviewed Dr. Bruce J. Holmes, one of the leading authorities in aviation for the past 40-years and an invaluable advisor to Joi Scientific.
A retired NASA veteran of 33-years, Bruce had a title that says it all, “Chief Strategist.” While at NASA, he led the development of several programs that now form the backbone of today’s air transportation network, such as the work he did for the U.S. Joint Planning and Development Office on the Next-Generation Air Transportation (NextGen). He also led the creation of the NASA Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments Alliance (AGATE) and the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) technology programs.
Dr. Holmes is a story-teller and an avid educator who has parlayed his impressive contributions to help advance public awareness and engagement. His work on the “Highway in the Sky” concept was the focus of both a CBS 60-Minutes program and a book, Free Flight: Reinventing Air Travel, by James Fallows. He has been featured on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and in numerous NASA educational programs. His work as an advocate of aviation earned NASA Crystal and Emmy awards.
True to his brand, Dr. Holmes opens our interview with an evocative anecdote: the gift of flying, which he was fortunate to receive early in life. Then, he reflects on the ways aviation can become more sustainable to support the Paris Agreement aim to limit global temperature rise to well below 2° Celsius, (while striving for 1.5° Celsius).
North American P-51D Mustang on the taxiway adjacent to Rogers Dry Lake at the NACA High-Speed Flight Station in 1955. By NASA on The Commons [Public domain or No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.
Here’s the inspiring interview we had with Dr. Holmes a few days ago:
I was the luckiest kid in the world. My dad gave me the greatest gift of all: the gift of flying. We had planes in the family; my dad was one of the first Naval aviator instructors in the transition from props to jets. He taught me to fly as soon as I was tall enough to see past the dashboard. Since then, I have been passionate about anything related to aviation.
One of my last jobs at NASA before retiring was serving as the Director of the Small Aircraft Transportation System program, commonly referred to as SATS. Specifically, we worked on how to advance technology in general aviation aircraft to improve overall airspace management and lessen congestion at large commercial airports through the use of smaller aircraft and small community airports. Improvements in both will ultimately increase public transportation and air passenger mobility. I would like my legacy to be seen as changing the world through the relentless application of technology to solve the challenges in aviation. One of which, probably the biggest since the dawn of the airplane, is to reduce aviation-related carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
Even if the aviation community does its best at reducing its carbon footprint, it is estimated that aircraft could still contribute up to 25% of the 2050 carbon emissions goal, which is necessary to limit the increase in global temperature rise to less than 1.5° Celsius. In addition, there is research that now shows that contrails (the white lines you see when planes are flying high in the stratosphere) influence the formation of clouds, which appears to be a non-trivial contributor to warming the planet. Furthermore, the UN’s target of limiting the increase in global temperatures to 1.5° Celsius means that if we do not do anything, the growth of the aviation industry will be severely impacted by regulation—right when the demand for air travel is increasing. This constraint would lead to higher prices and reduced mobility options for consumers.
One of the technology advances that needs to happen soon is around airspace management. Most of the technology to manage airspace was created explicitly to support human decision-making in managing aircraft flight paths one-at-a-time. This means that the automation technology can give air traffic operators the information for optimal airspace management; then they make the decisions on how to keep aircraft apart to ensure safety. The problem with this approach is that it is not very efficient. The way airspace is architected and managed frequently routes planes out of their way. In fact, about 12% of the distance flown by aircraft is unnecessary. This results in more flying time and more fuel consumed. Also, the ability for operators to manage the altitude of aircraft so that the contrails do not influence the formation of clouds is limited. I am involved in a technology deployment effort that will automate routing for planes and enable for very efficient flight paths. The efficiencies that appear possible will save about 10% of fuel globally. Another area ripe for innovation is aircraft propulsion. For example, just as the auto industry is breaking through on electric cars, the aviation industry is making significant progress in the same area. To have an electric airplane, you need an electric motor supplied with energy from batteries or fuel cells. Major technological progress needs to occur in the energy storage or production capacity with fuel cells or batteries.
Today, there are no commercial planes that are 100% clean. Some aircraft are using more biofuels. However, the challenge here is ethanol; using corn to create fuel takes more energy to produce than it saves, so it adds to greenhouse gases. There are also some people working on alternative fuels based on things we throw away like cooking oil. I believe these are mere gap-fillers until we can have a truly clean fuel. I strongly believe one of these contenders is hydrogen. That is what excites me about the work you are doing at Joi Scientific—enough for me to join your advisory board.
I see hydrogen evolving to power aircraft in several steps. First, in the form of liquid hydrogen for fuel cells that power electric aircraft. That is already a technically viable concept, if not yet economical. Fuel cells are a good step in the right direction but make fuel expensive, which impacts the efficiency of the system and the cost of flying. For me, the future of hydrogen in aviation that is most promising is around Hydrogen 2.0. Specifically, the innovation to use on-demand, on-site hydrogen fuel in an aircraft is quite a significant breakthrough. Looking to the future, it is clear that if there is going to be an abundant source of energy, hydrogen is the answer. We do not see another alternative currently in large volume at an affordable cost. The effect of that availability of power and energy on our standard of living and quality of life is profound.
Although it will take some time to work through the regulatory and technical issues in this field, the good news is that there are many new players in the industry who are quite interested in this opportunity. Many of them are focused on solving the intra-urban mobility challenge using electric-propelled vertical take-off and landing machines to move people, which nicely leverages and integrates the benefits from hydrogen for propulsion and the connected aircraft for airspace management. I believe both are needed to make it happen. Clean, small aircraft to improve the quality of our lives—wouldn’t that be amazing?
About Dr. Bruce J. Holmes
Dr. Bruce J. Holmes is an advisor to Joi Scientific and retired Chief Strategist for NASA. He is currently the principal in Holmes Consulting, LLC and co-founder of NextGen Apps Co, Inc., and AirMarkets Corporation. His companies support a variety of industry, government, and university clients in strategy, technology, aviation systems development, and public-private partnerships. He also consults for several boards of directors and advisory councils in industry, government, and academia. You can read more about his background here.
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