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Dreamliners and Peak Oil

'AT BREAK OF DAY all dreams, they say, are true.' So wrote the great English poet John Dryden (1631 - 1700) in his work entitled 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 animateprogress.

Published: 15-Jul-2006

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 Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" aircraft. The B-787 is being designed and built for a future world economic environment of, among other things, high 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 on line, 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 the Boeing Company 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 is 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 to 3,500 nautical miles (5,550 to 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 to 8,500 nautical miles (14,800 to 15,700 kilometers), while the 787-9 model will carry 250 - 290 passengers on routes of 8,600 to 8,800 nautical miles (15,900 to 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 as 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 and 50,000 fasteners, as compared with using 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, to include 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%

Three 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 six 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 three million fasteners. And think of the energy that it takes to lift those three 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 together in one piece? After all, people do not like it when things fall off of airplanes.

And from the standpoint of manufacturing the airplane, just imagine the raw labor input required for drilling three 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 that are entailed by drilling three million holes. Each hole has the potential to be drilled by mistake in the "wrong" place, as compared to where it ought to be. 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 in which it is drilled, thus diminishing a structure that it was intended to strengthen. Or each hole can become a pathway for moisture, and facilitate the corrosion over time that accompanies that 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 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, Kansas. The section, resembling a cylinder about 19 feet in diameter with a pointy-looking end, is constructed out of composite materials and 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.

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