How Aerospace Can Help Solve Energy Demands

I recently received a brochure for the International Energy Conversion Engineering Conference (IECEC), and it got me thinking how the aerospace industry has much to contribute when it comes to helping to solve the energy crisis. Organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the forum allows presentations and discussions on such topics as “21st Century Space Solar Power”, “Fuel Cells and the Hydrogen Economy” and “Synergies Between Space and Terrestrial Photovoltaics”.  The aerospace industry has long been involved with alternative power sources, developing and using fuel cells to provide electrical power for the spacecraft used on the Apollo program, and the near universal use of solar panels to provide power for most satellites and the huge international space station. This space technology has been perfected over a 50-year period, and much of the technology is directly applicable to uses on earth. There are now discussions of taking some of this technology even further by collecting, converting and beaming solar energy from space to earth receiving stations, where it could be added to the national power grid. Solar panels in space are more efficient, as the energy from the sun isn’t “diluted” by the earth’s atmosphere.

Other areas where the aerospace industry can contribute to reducing reliance on oil is aerodynamics and advanced light-weight materials. One of the most visible applications of aerodynamics to terrestrial applications are wind turbines, which are basically
refined aircraft propellers that convert wind energy into electricity.  You are starting to see them pop up in numerous windy areas, such as mountain passes and ridge tops. There are even plans to place them offshore to take advantage of the strong, steady winds found over the ocean. Some of the best ways to make a vehicle go further on a gallon of gas is to make it more aerodynamic, and lighter. Weight has always been a concern for aircraft engineers, so the aerospace industry has been at the forefront of developing strong, light-weight materials such as advanced composites. Many of these advanced materials can be applied directly to the design of new cars and trucks, giving them the same or better strength as steel, but at a lower weight. Also, many of the major car companies now have their own wind tunnels for refining the aerodynamic characteristics of their new models. Just a slight change in the roof, side-view mirrors, or hood design can provide less wind drag, and thus greater mileage for a car.

One of the first scientists to recognize the benefits of applying aerodynamic efficiency from aircraft to ground vehicles was Dr. Paul MacCready. MacCready was the famous aeronautical engineer who designed the human powered aircraft the Gossamer Condor, which won the Kremer prize in 1977. MaCready’s wind tunnel studies on tractor-trailers lead to the streamlined shrouds you see today on
the top of just about every tractor-trailer cruising the
highways. These shrouds help reduce the drag of the trailer, thus increasing
the miles-per-gallon and saving money for the long-haul trucker.  MaCready went on to start AeroVironment, an engineering firm that specialized in developing products that use aerodynamics to make them more efficient.  MacCready also had a hand in the aerodynamic design of the infamous GM EV-1 electric car that was the topic of the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car”.  It’s not stretching the truth to say that MaCready was one of the first to successfully prove that aerodynamics could be used to successfully develop and sell products other than aircraft.

As the energy crisis becomes more acute, I believe the aerospace industry will play a larger role in developing cost-effective, environmentally safe alternatives to carbon-based fuels. The IECEC conference is scheduled for July 28-30, 2008 in Cleveland, Ohio.

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