The Top 6 Technologies for Improving Aircraft Fuel Efficiency

The Top 6 Technologies for Improving Aircraft Fuel Efficiency

By Rajasimha Koppula

Fuel efficiency refers to how many miles an airplane can travel on one gallon of fuel.  This often gets included in discussions about global warming as well as long-term goals of containing average warming below the 2°C limit. Achievement of this limit would require deep cuts in emissions from all sectors. Over the last 20 years, available seats on aircraft have increased by more than 25% and demand is forecasted to continue to grow by around 5% yearly. The global fleet is expected to grow by 20,930 aircraft to reach about 40,000 in total in 2032.

It has been estimated that fuel demands from aviation will increase by between 1.9% and 2.6% each year until 2025. The projected growth in the aviation industry in the absence of additional mitigation could see its share of global emission increase to 22% by 2050. While the most effective measure of reducing aviation emissions is to decrease the growth, this would certainly not be ideal for industry players. What’s interesting here is that aircraft manufacturers and airlines are taking it upon themselves to reduce emissions by reducing fuel consumption, and the current concentration of this effort is increasing fuel efficiency.

The current aviation world is looking for new technologies, designs and materials that would sustainably increase fuel efficiency. Planes produce less CO2 by improving engines, enhancing aerodynamics and using lighter materials.


Winglets are devices mounted at the tip of the wings. Winglets are used to improve the aerodynamic efficiency of a wing by the flow around the wingtip to create additional thrust. They can improve airplane performance as much as 10% to 15%. An appropriately planned winglet at a slight point to the approaching wind and whirling stream around it causes “lift” on the winglet, which is coordinated internally along the wing and forward. Finally, by reducing drag, they can cut emissions by 6%.

Source: NASA

Flexible Navigation System:          

By replacing the present airplane navigation plan with real time updates, aircraft can avoid unfavorable weather conditions such as storms, high winds, etc. and take advantage of favorable weather conditions. Studies show that 1.4 tons of CO2 per flight is saved by using a flexible navigation system.

Continuous Climb and Descent Operations:     

Continuous climb and descent operations (CCO and CDO) are working strategies. CCO and CDO enable aircraft to follow an adaptable and ideal flight path that conveys major natural and financial advantages. These include: a decrease in fuel burn, lowered global gas emission, noise and fuel costs – all with no hostile impact on well-being.

Schematic image of Continuous Descent Operation (CDO) and Continuous Climb Operation (CCO). Source: Toratani, Daichi. (2016). Study on Simultaneous Optimization Method for Trajectory and Sequence of Air Traffic Management.

3D Printing/Carbon fibers/Shape Memory Alloys (SMA):

The aviation industry has begun using 3D printing technology (additive manufacturing), carbon fiber materials, and shape memory alloys (SMA) because they all can reduce aircraft weight while increasing customization and overall construction efficiency.  According to this report, the global aerospace 3D printing market is forecasted to grow at 55.85% CAGR during the period 2016-2020.

Shape memory alloys work through heat: at the required temperature, the alloy metal transforms into different shapes. SMA are being explored as vibration dampers for launch vehicles and commercial jet engines. Reducing the overall weight of the airplane is always a top priority to increase fuel efficiency.   

Changes of memory alloy in different temperature and pressure. Source: Du Quan, Xu Hai, Shape Memory Alloy in Various Aviation Field, Procedia Engineering, Volume 99, 2015, Pages 1241-1246.

Double-Bubble D8:

In 2008, as part of NASA’s N+3 program, a team of engineers from Aurora Flight Science, MIT, and Pratt & Whitney started working on a design concept for commercial aircraft. They named it “double-bubble” D8, and if the new machine works as anticipated, it could substantially decrease commercial aircraft noise, emission, and fuel burns associated with commercial travel.

Unlike other passenger aircraft, D8 designs do not have an engine beneath the wings. Instead, the designers opted to place the engines on top of the plane body near the tail. This alteration dramatically reduces the drag and improves fuel efficiency. If the D8 is designed and implemented as planned all over the world, it will have huge potential to reduce aviation related fuel consumption and will potentially reduce emissions up to 66% in 20 years. It will also lead to:

  • 37% less fuel consumption than passenger jets.
  • 50% reduction in community noise.
  • 87% reduction in landing and take of cycle nitrogen oxide emission.  

Blended Wing Body (BWB):

In just ten years, a plane that flies using a radical hybrid wing shaped body could become a reality. A scale version of the ‘Blended Wing Body’ (BWB) aircraft is currently being tested at a NASA facility. NASA says commercial designs will be available by 2035.

Boeing’s X-48B Blended Wing Body technology demonstrator shows off its unique lines at sunset on Rogers Dry Lake adjacent to NASA DFRC. Credits: Boeing Photo / Robert Ferguson

Some specs of the BWB aircraft include:

    • 27% less fuel
    • 15% weight reduction
    • 20% higher lift to drag ratio
    • 27% less thrust required


With the progression of various electric vehicles (EVs) in market, road transportation is definitely approaching zero CO2 emission. On another hand in the aviation sector, we are still discussing on how to increase the fuel efficiency to reduce CO2 emissions at higher levels. In the near future, extensive research is required to be able to place the aviation industry into the zero-emission basket.

Featured image courtesy of NASA/MIT/Aurora Flight Sciences.

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