Hybrid-electric plane may reduce aviation’s air pollution problem

The proposed design could reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 95 percent and thereby reduce the number of associated early deaths by 92 percent, a new MIT study finds.

Nitrogen oxides, or NOx, are a major source of air pollution and have been associated with asthma, respiratory disease, and cardiovascular disorders. Previous research has shown that the generation of these chemicals due to global aviation results in 16,000 premature deaths each year.

In the new hybrid-electric, or “turbo-electric,” design, a plane’s source of power would still be a conventional gas turbine, but it would be integrated within the plane’s cargo hold. Rather than directly powering propellers or fans, the gas turbine would drive a generator, also in the hold, to produce electricity, which would then electrically power the plane’s wing-mounted, electrically driven propellers or fans.

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

The details of the design, including analyses of its potential fuel cost and health impacts, are published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

Image credit: Courtesy of MIT the researchers

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