How cool! ecoDemonstrator tests parts that move as the temperature changes

New technology can reduce airplane drag to save fuel and lower carbon emissions.

November 15, 2019 in Our Environment

F. Tad Calkins, a Boeing Research & Technology associate technical fellow, and NASA materials research engineer Othmane Benafan are collaborating on the shape memory alloy project.

Paul McElroy photo

A Boeing 777 is made up of 3 million parts. Some are fixed in place while others move using fly-by-wire electronic signals, hydraulics, even the air itself.

The ecoDemonstrator program is testing a project this fall that uses temperature to move airplane parts. This technology is called shape memory alloy, which is a lightweight metal that can be stretched, bent, heated, cooled and still remember its original shape.

It’s being tested on vortex generators, which are small fins on top of an airplane wing or the vertical tail that improve aerodynamic performance during takeoff and landing. The fins are usually not needed when the airplane is cruising, however, and create drag because they’re fixed in place.

“The shape memory alloy material is engineered to twist when it's heated and cooled,” said F. Tad Calkins, an associate technical fellow in Boeing Research & Technology.

This twisting enables these novel vortex generators to stick up on the wing near the ground where it’s warmer, but fold down at altitude where the temperature is about minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This capability reduces drag, which lowers fuel use and carbon emissions.

An airline flying 100 airplanes using these special vortex generators could save as much as 3 million gallons of fuel a year. That’s enough to take some 3,800 cars off the road for 12 months.

The shape memory alloy project is a collaboration between Boeing and NASA, one of many partnerships that are foundational to the ecoDemonstrator program to help accelerate innovation.

“Having feedback coming back and forth about how we design the alloys, how the device is performing and what we can do to improve it ... is absolutely critical in maturing this technology,” said Othmane Benafan, a materials research engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

Fifty projects are being tested and demonstrated on this year’s ecoDemonstrator 777 that can enhance safety, improve environmental sustainability, and make flying more reliable and enjoyable for airlines and passengers. Learn more from Calkins and Benafan about the shape memory alloy project in this video.

By Paul McElroy & Eric Olson

A small rod inside the vortex generator twists as the temperature changes to make the device stand up on the wing and fold down against it as needed.

Eric Olson photo