As someone who has flown less than 4000 miles in a lifetime I am hardly the most reliant on air transport as a method of getting where I need to be.  This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate there are some things for which it is necessary to get somewhere thousands of miles away fast, where an international conference call will not suffice.  The world needs air travel.  The world also needs a way to do it without toasting itself in the process.

A few weeks ago a friend mentioned to me at dinner something he had been pondering: ‘How do we fly when the oil runs out?  You’re a physicist and you’re into environmental stuff, what do you think?’  The slightly shameful answer is that at the time I hadn’t given that scenario much thought.  After trying to solve the problem at the dinner table using some theoretically perfect solar panels and my rather sketchy memory of Stefan’s constant we eventually had to admit defeat and consult Google.  Sadly (at least with my search terms) Google did not seem to come up with ways we can commercially fly without oil, just ways we can’t.

The problem with most of the alternative energy sources for cars and the like which are being researched at the moment is they are quite heavy.  For flight, weight is (of course) one of the most important considerations.  If a fuel hasn’t a high enough energy density you aren’t going anywhere.  This rules out hydrogen fuel cells and solar panels somewhat.

Many say that when oil runs out we will be able to produce biofuels which can do the job, but emissions from burning biofuels are hardly much of an improvement.

I don’t know the answer and (correct me if I’m wrong) it seems that few do at the current moment in time.  Until we find a solution all we can do is encourage new planes such as the Airbus A380 – the double decker bus of the aeroplane world - which are far more efficient per passenger than standard sized planes.  Most importantly though, cut out frivolous flying.

Blog written by Natalie Haley, E&E Chair
9/2/2012

Great info, thanks

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