Boeing reveals ecoDemonstrator programme plans

Now in its tenth year, the five-month initiative aims to advance the progression of promising technologies by taking them out of the lab and into the sky

US aerospace giant Boeing has partnered with Alaska Airlines for its latest ecoDemonstrator programme which will see 20 new technologies tested on a 737-9.

In five months of testing, the duo will work with nine other partners to examine the effectiveness of products including new recycled carbon fibre cabin sidewalls, noise-reducing engine nacelle linings and a new fire extinguisher chemical.

Boeing 737 MAX
The jet's registration is believed to be N979AK (c/n 43393), a two-year-old example. Boeing

Since 2012, the scheme has taken nearly 200 promising technologies out of the lab to test them in the air in a bid to address challenges for the aviation industry and improve the passenger experience.

The most prominent success story to come out of the initiative is arguably the split wingtips found on the 737 MAX family of aircraft which were tested during 2012’s programme.

The Boeing 737 MAX family's split wing tip design was tested during the 2012 ecoDemonstrator programme. Aviation Image Network

When asked about what benefits airlines see from participating in the scheme, Rae Lutters, ecoDemonstrator programme director and chief engineer, told Key.Aero: “I think Alaska Airlines is really excited to partner with [us] because sustainability is really key to their culture – I believe they have a sustainability mission and goal as well and they’re wanting to help the industry.”

Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines took delivery of its first 737 MAX aircraft in January. Alaska Airlines

“We work with the airlines to come up with ideas that they may have as well around safety and sustainability,” added Doug Christensen, Boeing technical fellow and ecoDemonstrator programme technical leader. “Back on the 757 that we did with TUI [in 2015] they did it in house and their staff could bring ideas to test on the airplane.

“One of the things we tested was a recycling cart that was convertible from carrying the onboard food and then [turned] into a bin that could be used to remove the recycled material.”

“It’s a combination of their interests and the technologies around innovation and sustainability and the ability to provide the airplane in a time we can use it,” he concluded.

The tests

Key experiments in this year’s programme under a “safety and sustainability” heading include examining a replacement for the Halon gas used in onboard fire extinguishers, low profile anti-collision lights and UAV ground-based engineering inspections.

In the era of COVID-19, Boeing is using the programme to further test its hand-held disinfection UV wand and also a new initiative exploring the use of air curtains in the cabin to prevent lateral movement of air particles between rows.

Meanwhile, a new acoustic engine nacelle lining will be put to the test in a bid to reduce noise. The right-hand powerplant will be modified with acoustic liners and other treatments will be made to the thrust reversers.

In the cabin, the airframer is set to explore the use of recycled carbon fibre – sourced from the 777X wing production process – as sidewall panels.

Under a “cleaner skies” banner, the Chicago-based manufacturer has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to measure greenhouse gas levels in the air to help improve climate modelling and long-term forecasting.

Boeing’s testing will focus on helping the agency implement the optimal air sampling strategy to minimise equipment installation cost and effect on aircraft operations while maximising measurement quality.

The results of the tests will enable NOAA to install equipment on other airliners in the future.

Fuel focus

The use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) has been a cornerstone of the ecoDemonstrator programme for the life of the scheme and this year is no different.

In 2018, Boeing operated a FedEx 777F on 100% SAF and since then has worked with varying concentrations up to 80%. All flights this year will be powered by a 30% blend of SAF and regular jet fuel.

Asked by Key.Aero about why it couldn’t simply use 100% SAF all the time, Christensen responded: “At this point, it’s the regulations and qualifications of the fuel. Right now the fuels are approved up to 50% and as you saw with last year’s programme we flew a number of flights up at that [percentage] with Etihad on the 787 Dreamliner so that is capable but the work that still has to be done is to get the fuels approved to the higher percentages and then the testing and design work that has to be done to make our airplanes capable of accepting those higher percentages.”

The aircraft involved in this year’s programme is thought to be N979AK (c/n 43393), a two-year-old undelivered 737 MAX jet which according to Lutters, is part of the recently acquired cohort of jets Alaska Airlines signed for in a deal announced in December last year.

Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator programme is scheduled to run from June 29 through to December 2.