A couple years ago, I wrote a piece Why We Need An X Prize for Eco-Friendly Air Travel, encouraging a competitive approach towards innovating a way to slash air travel emissions:
Air travel presents one of the stickiest problems we face.
On the one hand, in a rapidly globalizing world, we need to fly to do business, build networks and see loved ones. Indeed, to many people (including myself, to be honest), the ability to travel easily and keep a global community is one of the greatest accomplishments of our civilization.
On the other hand, air travel is frying the planet. While air travel contributes only 3% of humanity's total CO2 emissions (making them a problem only a few times larger than, say, coal fires), air travel is growing at an astounding rate. ...
So, here's my answer: we need better jets. We need to crack a seemingly insolvable problem and design carbon-neutral, non-toxic air transportation. We have a pretty good mechanism for getting people to tackle dramatic challenges: prizes. ... What we need is a prize, a big prize, a prestigious prize, given to the first team that can, say, cut by three-quarters airplane emissions (got to start somewhere) in a commercially practical way.
So I was really pleased to get a press release today about an aviation X Prize funded by the US FAA:
Over the next 14 months, the X PRIZE Foundation will consult with industry experts to develop a strategy to bring together the best minds in the aviation and science communities to solve the technical challenges and speed up the development and implementation of cost-effective renewable aviation fuels and technologies that have an environmental life-cycle benefit and do not present potentially negative side effects, such as the displacement of food production or the inducement of land use changes that lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions. The X PRIZE Foundation will work with various organizations, including the private-sector and academic members of the FAA’s Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuel Initiative (CAAFI). In addition, the Foundation will define an implementation strategy that could lead to advances in environmentally friendly alternative aviation fuels and technologies that will ultimately accelerate their introduction at a faster pace than the market would normally provide. The strategy will facilitate discussions among industry and the government to identify prize sponsors and initiate the prize competition.
Now, I'm somewhat skeptical of any fuels-based approach -- though smart people like Patrick Mazza tell me I'm wrong about biojet -- but, really, this is probably a classic example of a problem where it pays to remain agnostic about solutions until we see what they can do.
In any case, way to go, X Prize team!
As an undergrad aerospace engineering student at UCLA, I think the best way to solve this problem is to use liquid hydrogen as fuel. Of course infrastructure will be an issue, but I think it's a wonderful approach.
About five months ago, a team and I did a design project on the topic of supersonic transports for the 2030 - 2035 time frame. I worked on the fuel and propulsion subsystem, and these were areas that were in dire need of change to support the plane we designed.