Air travel is a major source of carbon emissions, accounting for about 2.4 percent of global emissions each year. There are a range of solutions in the works, from electrifying aircraft to using hydrogen fuel to bringing back the airship. The likelihood of any of these coming to fruition varies, and even if they do, it won’t be soon.
A California-based startup called JetZero has a different idea: changing the shape of commercial planes and the material they’re made of. The company unveiled its designs for the midsize commercial and military tanker-transport markets this spring, and has big plans to upend the way air travel looks and feels—as well as how much it costs and how much carbon it emits. Tony Fadell, founder of venture capital firm Build Collective and a JetZero investor and strategic advisor, thinks the company could be the “SpaceX of aviation” due to its potential to disrupt the existing business model.
JetZero’s planes, which are still in the concept/prototype phase, have a blended wing body design. That means the wings merge with the main body of the aircraft, rather than being attached to a hollow tube like the planes we travel in today. Picture the body of a manta ray: wide and flat, it tapers off to a narrower fin at each side, with a head and a tail. A blended wing body aircraft isn’t terribly different, though on JetZero’s models the body isn’t quite as wide.
Besides providing a lot more space, this design is more aerodynamic than tube-and-wing planes. JetZero plans to fly its planes at higher altitudes than today’s norm (40 to 45,000 feet rather than 30 to 35,000), and says its airframe will cut fuel burn and emissions in half. It plans to make its planes out of carbon fiber and kevlar (a strong lightweight fiber used for things like body armor, bulletproof vests, car brakes, boats, and aircraft). The company says its planes’ lighter weight and improved aerodynamics would be able to fly at the same speed and range as existing midbody jetliners, but burn half as much fuel in the process.
JetZero points out that we’ve brought the traditional tube-and-wing design about as far as we possibly can in terms of efficiency gains; there’s not much more to be done to make them lighter, faster, or more fuel-efficient. At the same time, jet fuel is getting more expensive, and reducing emissions is getting more urgent. If JetZero is able to bring its blended wing body aircraft to production, it would be the first major overhaul of commercial passenger planes, well, ever. But, the company says, its planes would still fit seamlessly into airport infrastructure, utilizing existing runways and gates without requiring significant alterations.
The company is planning to test a small prototype of its design with a 23-foot wingspan this summer and hopes to secure Air Force funding to build a full-size prototype it would demo in 2027. If all goes to plan, JetZero’s planes would start commercial service in a decade or so.
There are a lot of bumps they could encounter on the road to get there, but also a lot of incentive to make it happen. The aforementioned climate impact of air travel is likely to come under increased fire, as is occurring with anything that has significant climate impact.
Some countries are trying to reduce the amount of air travel their citizens do, like France, which just banned domestic short-haul flights. Other countries including Spain and Germany are considering restricting short-haul flights or imposing an extra tax on them. Measures like these may make a small difference, but when it comes down to it, people are still going to want to travel. In fact, if the global middle class continues to grow, demand for air travel will only go up; at present, only about three percent of the global population takes regular flights.
A more planet-friendly way to do it, then, is going to be imperative. SpaceX has proven that it’s possible for one private company to come along and completely upend a massively complex industry. Could JetZero do the same?
They’re going to try.
Image Credit: JetZero