NASA research to aid future airliner design
Discoveries made by NASA could cut airline fuel use in half, reduce pollution by 75% and aircraft noise to around an eighth of today’s level, the space agency has said.
NASA has just completed its six-year Environmentally Responsible Aviation project and has unveiled a raft of innovations that it believes could cut airline costs drastically if they can be implemented successfully. In some cases, fuel consumption and pollution may be reduced dramatically. 
The project focused on the three key areas of airframe and propulsion technology and vehicle systems integration with a $400m investment from the space agency plus another $250m from industry partners including Boeing.
Eight key discoveries were made, some of which can be incorporated into the aircraft manufacturing process. A Seattle-based company has already taken one, a morphing wing technology that allows an aircraft to seamlessly extend flaps without drag and noise-inducing gaps.
Other discoveries were made in basic aircraft design, with one such innovation incorporating tiny nozzles to blow air over an aircraft’s vertical tail fin, which enables a smaller fin to be used, reducing drag. Also trialled were new surface coatings designed to further minimize drag caused by the build-up of bug residue on the wing’s leading edge.
More fundamental design changes were also examined. NASA developed a new process for stitching together large sections of composite materials to create damage-tolerant structures. This will influence future aircraft design, as NASA says new type aircraft could weigh as much as 20% less than a similar all-metal build.
Work with engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney on an advanced fan design could reduce fuel burn by 15% and significantly reduce noise, NASA believes; while an improved design for a jet engine combustor, the chamber in which fuel is burned, saw an 80% reduction in nitrogen oxides emitted.
“If these technologies start finding their way into the airline fleet, our computer models show the economic impact could amount to $255 billion in operational savings between 2025 and 2050,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics research.