Flying Green

Graphic Jayde Norström

While ConU Aerospace Institute Seeks to Reduce Emissions, Air Canada Slowly Manoeuvres Toward Cleaner Skies

Though it’s 13 stories tall, the highest point in Concordia’s Hall Building is actually in the basement.

That’s where Concordia University researchers are flying high, using a flight simulator to develop a more eco-friendly flight.

While the majority of an aircraft’s flight is controlled by computers programmed to reduce fuel consumption, changing altitudes mid-flight is still not done in the most fuel-efficient way. Concordia’s researchers are looking to change that.

“The idea here was to design flight controllers that would go from one set point to another set point while minimizing fuel,” said project leader Dr. Luis Rodrigues, undergraduate program director of the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and faculty member of the Concordia Institute of Aerospace Design and Innovation.

Rodrigues has been leading this research since 2007, when Concordia’s flight simulator was donated by Mechtronix—a flight simulator engineering company founded in 1987 by a group of Concordia students.

“Concordia University has a long tradition of flight simulation,” Rodrigues said. He was already doing extensive research in aircraft control when the idea to tie in ecological concerns crept in.

“There has been a lot of talk about next-generation aircrafts—a lot of people talk about electric aircrafts,” he admitted. “Especially now, since lawmakers and stakeholders are imposing laws on emissions. They are finally waking up to the reality that the planet is heating up too much.”

But while Canada is at the forefront of green flight technology, its progress comes on a kind of honour system, rather than by firm legislation.

Transport Canada has issued the “Aviation Action Plan” which outlines how players in the aviation industry are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But it clearly states, “[The Aviation Action Plan] does not contain legal obligations of any kind or impose unreasonable expectations on any party, or intend to negatively impact any air carrier’s ability to do business in Canada.”

The plan looks to increase the fuel efficiency of the Canadian aircraft fleet, and since 2005, $13.5 billion has been invested in modernizing Canadian airlines for fuel efficiency.

Rodrigues said that the industry is looking 10 or 20 years ahead in terms of what it can change. On top of improving fuel efficiency, alternate sources of energy are also being investigated.

“Electric aircrafts are definitely a possibility,” he said. “And people talk about using hydrogen cells, but the problem is that it’s flammable. A long time ago there was a big disaster with a hydrogen blimp and a lot of people died. So people have been a bit concerned with the hydrogen cell solution.”

The Hindenburg airship is definitely one chapter of aviation history that the frequent flyer might not be comfortable revisiting. But even if not hydrogen, alternate energy like an electric aircraft poses environmental problems of its own.

“It’s not going to be completely environmentally friendly,” Rodrigues said. “When you dispose of those batteries, those are toxic chemicals as well. But it’s just not going in the atmosphere. […] It’s a different problem.”

For now, biofuel, which has its own controversies, is the way forward that Air Canada is banking on. A representative for Air Canada, Isabelle Arthur, stated in an email that Air Canada is actively involved in the development of biofuel.

Air Canada performed two biofuel flights this year: one from Toronto to Mexico City, and another from Montreal to Heathrow Airport for the London Olympic Games.

The company is actively trying to meet the goals outlined in the Aviation Action Plan. Some of the targets they signed on for include improving fuel efficiency by two per cent every year until 2020 and having a 50 per cent reduction in overall emissions by 2050.

Rodrigues said that emissions are constantly increasing, so aiming for this kind of reduction may be difficult.

“We live in a very market-oriented society that only looks at money,” he said. 

“So although there are lots of companies that have the goodwill to help the environment, at the end of the day, they want to make money, of course. And if there’s no legislation that will make them reduce emissions by giving them penalties they will not consider it as a high priority.”

Although Air Canada’s environmental endeavours can reduce flight emissions by over 40 per cent, Arthur stated, “at this time, there is not enough supply of aviation biofuel to meet the needs of thousands of flights, including Air Canada’s, operated around the world every day.”