Cutting fuel consumption on airplanes by perforating wings

Posted: June 1, 2009 in science & technology
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Wings that waggle could cut aircraft emissions by 20%

perforated wingsWings which redirect air to waggle sideways could cut airline fuel bills by 20% according to research funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Airbus in the UK.

The new approach, which promises to dramatically reduce mid-flight drag, uses tiny air powered jets which redirect the air, making it flow sideways back and forth over the wing.

The jets work by the Helmholtz resonance principle – when air is forced into a cavity the pressure increases, which forces air out and sucks it back in again, causing an oscillation – the same phenomenon that happen when blowing over a bottle.

Dr Duncan Lockerby, from the University of Warwick, who is leading the project, said: “This has come as a bit of a surprise to all of us in the aerodynamics community. It was discovered, essentially, by waggling a piece of wing from side to side in a wind tunnel.”

“The truth is we’re not exactly sure why this technology reduces drag but with the pressure of climate change we can’t afford to wait around to find out. So we are pushing ahead with prototypes and have a separate three year project to look more carefully at the physics behind it.”

Simon Crook, EPSRC Senior manager for aerospace & defence, said: “This could help drastically reduce the environmental cost of flying. Research like this highlights the way UK scientists and engineers continue to make significant contributions to our lives.”

The UK aviation industry has announced targets to reduce emissions per passenger km by 50% by 2020.

Part of these savings will be made from lighter aircraft plus improvements in engines and fuel efficiencies but drag friction is also a major factor in fuel consumption during flights.

Engineers have known for some time that tiny ridges known as ‘riblets’ – like those found on sharks bodies – can reduce skin-friction drag, (a major portion of mid-flight drag), by around 5%. But the new micro-jet system being developed by Dr Lockerby and his colleagues could reduce skin friction drag by up to 40%,

The research, being carried out with scientists at Cardiff, Imperial, Sheffield, and Queen’s University Belfast, is still at concept stage although it is hoped the new wings could be ready for trials as early as 2012.

If successful this technology could also have a major impact on the aerodynamic design and fuel consumptions of cars, boats and trains.

More information on EPSRC funded ‘Active Aircraft’ projects can be found here

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £740 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

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