Today’s Solutions: January 18, 2022

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are one of the biggest contributors to air pollution and have been associated with a variety of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Research shows that the aviation industry’s share of total NOx emissions contributes to an estimated 16,000 premature deaths every year.

In a bid to help reduce the negative impacts of the aviation industry on the environment and our health, researchers from MIT have recently engineered an innovative plane component that could eliminate 95 percent of an aircraft’s NOx emissions.

The new hybrid concept rethinks airplane propulsion and has been inspired by emissions control systems used in ground transportation vehicles. The aim of these systems is to reduce the NOx generated by engines. The newly proposed design replicates this concept and is augmented with an electric component.

While it doesn’t change the standard thrust features of airplanes — which are a combination of engines and gas turbines — the new design involves relocating gas turbines into a hybrid-electric plane’s cargo hold, where they would power an electricity-producing generator to power propellers or fans.

The emissions produced by the gas turbine would then be captured by an emissions-control system, essentially similar to those in diesel vehicles, which would clean the exhaust before emitting it into the atmosphere.

“This would still be a tremendous engineering challenge, but there aren’t fundamental physics limitations,” said Steven Barrett, MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “If you want to get to a net-zero aviation sector, this is a potential way of solving the air pollution part of it, which is significant, and in a way, that’s technologically quite viable.”

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