“At break of day, when dreams, they say, are true” — so wrote the great English poet John Dryden (1631-1700) in his work The Spanish Friar. The implication, of course, is that as the day wears on, the press of reality prevents some dreams from being fulfilled. This is an article about airplanes, but it also concerns the dreams that animate progress. For more on John Dryden, please see the “P.S.” at the end of this article.
The Realm of Dreams and Dreamliners
Dryden’s observation about dreams “at break of day” provides a suitable introduction to discuss an important development in one of the world’s key high-technology industries, the aptly named the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The B-787 is being designed and built for a future world economic environment of, among other things, highly priced fuel. In many respects, this new aircraft is a dream at break of day, at the dawn of the post-Peak Oil world. This aircraft is where advanced technology confronts Peak Oil. If there is any test by which to gauge whether or not the promise of so-called “technology” can overcome the challenges of Peak Oil, the Dreamliner is it.
Peak Oil and Fuel Prices
But first, let’s discuss Peak Oil. Predictions of high-priced fuel in the future are, in most respects, a reflection of Peak Oil. Peak Oil is a means of thinking about a critical geological concept. That concept is based on the powerful evidence that mankind has reached a “peak” in its ability to extract and recover the relatively light, relatively sweet rock oil of the planet through the use of traditional industrial methods of recovery. Peak Oil is also a shorthand way of stating the mathematical calculation that about half of all of the conventional oil in the crust of the Earth has been located and pumped from the ground. From the standpoint of availability energy in the form of liquid crude oil, things are going to change, and change profoundly. But you probably know that.
Modern, and certainly Western-style, economic life is based on the ready availability of large quantities of relatively cheap, sweet, easily refined petroleum. This is what has evolved over the past 140 years or so. We are all both products and prisoners of history.
Absent the happy state of affairs brought about by relatively cheap and available supplies of oil, the economies and societies of the world will have to rebalance themselves to function at a lower average energy state. The immediate impact of the peaking of conventional oil production is that the price of oil has steadily risen, and people and industries are in turn switching to lower-quality substitutes. But using substitutes, such as heavy oil, tar sand, converted coal, and other fossil carbon deposits, means that consumers, businesses, and governments everywhere will have to pay more money, and invest more capital, to recover less net energy.
Peak Oil, Markets, and Dreamliners
So Peak Oil is real. But so are markets and market mechanisms. As conventional oil becomes scarce, and as more-expensive substitutes come online, efficiency becomes more and more of a valuable commodity, as well. And so across the economies and industrial sectors of the world, we are witnesses to a race between rising energy prices and adaptability through behavior and technology. There are few better examples of smart people confronting Peak Oil head-on than the development by Boeing of the B-787 Dreamliner.
Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is being designed as a super-efficient airplane in every respect. It is far lighter in weight than any comparable aircraft. Its skin and aerodynamic design are smoother, thus offering less drag as the aircraft moves through the sky. Its engines and engine housings are among the most advanced engineering products ever designed, all with the goal of fuel efficiency. And all of this is incorporated into a product that must be constructed with safety of flight foremost in mind.
One version of the Dreamliner features a wing and structure optimized for shorter-range flights. This aircraft, the 787-3 model, will accommodate 290-330 passengers and be optimized for routes of 3,000-3,500 nautical miles (5,550-6,500 km). Other versions of the Dreamliner will offer big-jet ranges in a mid-sized airplane. The 787-8 model will carry 210-250 passengers on routes of 8,000-8,500 nautical miles (14,800-15,700 km), while the 787-9 model will carry 250-290 passengers on routes of 8,600-8,800 nautical miles (15,900-16,300 km).
Thus, the Dreamliner aircraft will bring the economics of large jet transports to the middle of the market, while using 20% less fuel than any other airplane of its size. Less fuel burn also translates into better environmental performance, and approximately 20% fewer exhaust emissions. The airplane will travel at speeds similar to today’s fastest wide-bodies, Mach 0.85, about the same speed a B-777 or B-747 travels, and offer its airline users much-expanded volume for cargo revenue capacity. What does it take to accomplish this feat?
Advanced Technology — Really Advanced
To achieve high efficiency, fuel consumption must be minimized by reducing the weight and drag of the aircraft. The key to the exceptional performance of the Dreamliner is a suite of new technologies being developed by Boeing and its international development and supplier team. Boeing has announced that as much as 50% of the primary aircraft structure of the B-787, including the fuselage and wing box, will be made of composite materials.
The B-787 will be the first commercial jet ever to have a majority of this primary structure made of advanced composite materials. For example, by manufacturing a one-piece composite fuselage section, Boeing is eliminating about 1,500 aluminum sheets and between 40,000-50,000 fasteners, compared with current manufacturing methods. Boeing will use graphite, combined with a toughened epoxy resin, as the main composite. The wings will also include titanium-graphite composite. Titanium is a strong metal known for its light weight and durability, while graphite is a stable form of carbon.
Composites offer a variety of advantages, including better durability, reduced maintenance requirements, and increased potential for future modifications and developments. Generally, composites weigh significantly less than comparable aluminum structures, although they do not necessarily cost significantly more than aluminum.
By way of comparison, about 50% of the weight of a B-777, a Boeing aircraft currently in production, is aluminum. And 12% of the weight of a B-777 is composites. Yet only about 20% of the B-787 will be aluminum by weight, with 50% of weight taken up by composites. More exactly, the material breakout on B-787 airframe is as follows:
Composites — 50%
Aluminum — 20%
Titanium — 15%
Steel — 10%
Other — 5%
3 Million Ways to Make a Mistake, or to Avoid One
By way of another comparison, a B-747-400 (the current model of Boeing’s jumbo jet, being replaced by the 747-8) is constructed out of over 6 million identifiable parts. Half of these parts are fasteners such as rivets and screws. Three million fasteners? There are only 2.6 million blocks of stone in the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt.
Try to imagine the weight of 3 million fasteners. And think of the energy that it takes to lift those 3 million objects into the sky at each takeoff. What if you could eliminate much of that weight, but retain the reliability necessary to hold an airplane in one piece? After all, people do not like it when things fall off airplanes.
And from the standpoint of manufacturing the airplane, just imagine the raw labor input required for drilling 3 million holes in all of the many elements of such a massive airplane as a B-747. Think of how many tungsten drill bits this requires.
Imagine the engineering challenge and quality control issues entailed by drilling 3 million holes. Each hole has the potential to be drilled by mistake into the “wrong” place. Hence, each hole creates the potential to turn a valuable piece of aerospace-grade metal into scrap that is destined for the melt pot. Or each hole, if drilled improperly, has the potential to crystallize and weaken the metal matrix into which it is drilled, thus diminishing a structure it was intended to strengthen. Or each hole can become a pathway for moisture and facilitate the corrosion over time that accompanies moisture. If you did not know that people could build such a complex structure as a B-747, you would wonder if it could be done at all.
But rather than using traditional fasteners to hold the aircraft structures together in the B-787, most of the composite elements of a Boeing’s new design aircraft will be essentially “baked” together in a set of massive autoclaves. A typical structural panel on a B-747 or similar aircraft might require hundreds of individual fasteners for its stringers and cross-stabilizers. In the B-787, the plane builders are using a remarkable process of what is called “composite lay-up” that permits them to tailor the size and thickness of various components to precise design specifications. This serves to save weight on the aircraft, making the B-787 as much as 40 tons “lighter” than it would have been if constructed via traditional methods. The composite lay-up process also serves generally to strengthen the entire structure and to reduce the potential for internal corrosion over time.
To amplify this point, the first nose section of the B-787 was recently completed at a facility in Wichita, Kan. The section, resembling a cylinder about 19 feet in diameter with a pointy-looking end, is constructed out of composite materials as a single component. The construction method gives the assembly a high degree of contour. The next step is literally to cut out the openings for windows, doors, access panels, and other hull penetrations. Then the assembly will be tested to ensure that it meets specifications for accuracy of form and fit, as well as for safety of flight.
Saving Fuel With a Different Paint Job
The most fuel-efficient engines for modern jet aircraft are high-bypass, high-pressure-ratio gas turbine engines. There are no realistic alternatives. These kinds of engines have high combustion pressures and temperatures, which are consistent with fuel efficiency when burning hydrocarbons, although they also increase nitrogen oxide formation rates at high power takeoff and at altitude cruise conditions. Life is full of tradeoffs.
Boeing has selected General Electric and Rolls-Royce to develop engines for the new B-787. Boeing forecasts that advances in engine technology will contribute as much as 8% of the increased efficiency of its new airplane, representing a nearly two-generation jump in engine technology for the target market.
Boeing engineers are focusing extensively on what might seem to be the smallest details in order to enhance the performance of the B-787. But when it comes to building and flying airplanes, it is small things that make the big differences. For example, Boeing has developed a method for maintaining a smooth flow of air, called laminar flow, over much more area on the B-787 engine nacelle inlet than is the case with every other commercial aircraft now flying. This will serve to reduce both aircraft drag and fuel consumption.
The new design of the B-787 engine nacelle has a tightly controlled, highly engineered smooth surface with essentially no breaks. This will preserve laminar flow of air, which occurs within just a few millimeters of the aircraft surface, over a greater distance than that of a standard nacelle design. Thus is total aircraft drag reduced because laminar flow has much lower skin friction drag than does turbulent flow. The airplane flies “smoother.”
To achieve this degree of laminar flow over the inlet, it is critical to eliminate any semblance of roughness, and to maintain a very smooth and continuous surface without paint edges. Paint edges can occur when paint transitions from one color to another, or as paint details are added over time. So the design parameter for the B-787 nacelles is based on specifying a particular thickness of the paint formulation for a single color. Boeing has chosen gray as the color, to complement the metallic appearance of the nacelle’s inlet.
The result of controlling the smoothness of the engine nacelles, and thus preserving laminar flow of air over these surfaces, has the effect of reducing the annual fuel burn of a B-787 by 30,000 gallons per year.
A Distinctive Airplane
For all of the advanced technology that is going into the B-787, the overriding design and technological consideration of aircraft today is safety. Manufacturers know how to build, and operators know how to operate, modern fleets of jets because they have been doing so for many decades. The basic shape and inner construction and layout of large commercial jet airplanes has remained essentially unchanged since the introduction of the Boeing 707 nearly 50 years ago. The reason is that the shape and inner structures are optimal for creating a sturdy airframe that can achieve lift, overcome drag, and produce efficient, comfortable flight.
In many respects, Boeing is turning this past methodology of building airplanes on its head. On any given day, a commercial aircraft might bake in the hot sun on an airport tarmac for hours at 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the aircraft will take off and climb to over 40,000 feet altitude, where temperatures plunge to 70 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Later on, the airplane will land at some airport in a northern climate and sit for hours in more sub-zero weather to include ice and snow. And the aircraft will do this almost every day for up to 25 years.
So while it is one thing to use graphite and titanium in golf clubs or bicycles, it is quite another thing to take these exotic substances and construct an airplane out of them. No one would want to find out that there is a “problem” with the construction method while flying at Mach 0.85 and 45,000 feet somewhere above the Indian Ocean. So there is still a great deal of testing by Boeing that has to go into the airplane before it flies.
To its credit, Boeing has been careful and prudent in its approach to designing the B-787. Almost all of the structures and techniques being used in the B-787 have been developed and tested in military, and even in outer space, applications over the past three decades. Lay-up, or similarly woven-type fuselage designs date back to the Second World War. Some combat aircraft of that era were constructed in almost exactly this manner, using woven strips of wood and metal (without the baking in an autoclave). These aircraft were quite robust, and many survived even extensive combat damage. Of more recent vintage, the wings of the upgraded Grumman A-6E “Intruder,” one of the toughest combat aircraft that ever flew, were made of laminated composites. And many of the structures inside modern “stealth” aircraft are of composite manufacture.
According to Boeing, its designers decided to use composite materials in the B-787, as opposed to traditional alloys of aluminum, because composites hold the promise of providing greater durability, reduced maintenance, and increased potential for future development. Aside from issues of weight and costs of fabrication, Boeing is planning to embed sensors into the composite structures to monitor the health of the aircraft and to facilitate scheduled maintenance. That is, embedded sensors will allow the airplane to self-monitor and report maintenance requirements to ground-based computer systems.
Despite the novelty of the manufacturing techniques, Boeing has convinced a rather blue chip list of airlines and aircraft operating and leasing companies of the merits of the new B-787 product. To date, 28 airlines have logged 403 orders and commitments worth more than $55 billion at current list prices since the official launch of the B-787 in April 2004. This makes the Dreamliner the most successful commercial airplane launch in Boeing’s history. (You had to ask: The list price of a B-787, depending on the model, ranges from $138-188 million.)
Back to Peak Oil
So here you have it, the B-787 Dreamliner. It is the most advanced commercial airliner ever constructed, with the most advanced technologies ever incorporated in a commercial product. If the Dreamliner is not high-tech, then I cannot imagine what is. If this airplane is not a “dream…at break of day,” then I cannot think of another comparison. And Boeing is right up front about how the purpose of the aircraft is to offer fuel efficiency to its customers in an era of rising fuel prices.
Will people still fly in the future? There are many angles to that question. Will people still want to move rapidly from one end of a continent to the other, or cross an ocean to go someplace else? Will there still be airline companies that can operate aircraft and offer flight service in an age of expensive fuel? Who will be able to afford to travel in the future? What will be the economics, if not the environmental politics, of flying?
One thing is for sure. Fuel prices will rise, and even Boeing acknowledges this. Still, despite all of the gloomy forecasts for the future price of fuel, Boeing is forecasting a $2.6 trillion (yes, “trillion” with a “T”) market for new commercial airplanes over the next 20 years. Boeing is planning for strong market demand for upward of 27,000 new commercial airplanes that will lead to a world fleet with significantly improved level of energy efficiency and environmental performance.
And to meet the demand of that forecast market, Boeing is offering to build and sell the most fuel-efficient commercial aircraft ever constructed. And from the time the first airplane goes wheels-up on takeoff, the rest of the world is just going to have to figure it all out. If people do not fly much in the future, it will not be for lack of effort, or airplanes, from the construction sheds of Boeing.
Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
P.S.: John Dryden worked and wrote in an England that had just undergone the tumult of overthrowing and killing its king. The past had lost its anchor, and the future was entirely uncharted territory. By the time Dryden came of age, his England of the 1650s was in the midst of the Restoration with the return of Charles II as monarch. Still, with the past in shambles, what would the future bring?
In the years before Dryden came to fame, theaters had been closed during the reign of Oliver Cromwell under the “Puritan Ban.” Hence, with the lifting of the heavy hand of government control, there was, to be sure, plenty of work for an aspiring playwright like the young Dryden, who busied himself with the composition of dramas that pitted comedy against tragedy. Even when the Great Plague closed the theaters in 1665, Dryden continued his creative work.
Much of Dryden’s writing dealt with the realm of human dreams. Long before the word “psychology” had been invented, Dryden explored the inner ability of people to confront reality, pleasant or unpleasant, through the process of dreaming. Dryden was living and working in an England that had, both figuratively and literally, moved beyond its insular past and was evolving into a nation that would explore the globe. The servants and agents of the new king and his country were locating hitherto unknown lands (well, unknown to England, at least), and returning to tell tales of new worlds that served to astonish.
Dryden enjoyed a long and illustrious career, and his writing was influential in shaping English thought as the small island nation began to explore the frontiers of newly discovered lands. After Dryden died in 1700, he was interred in Westminster Abbey.