Written by Staff Writer at CNN, Emily Jane Fox
Racing through the sky, clanging its wings in impressive ways, the airplane looks familiar and unstoppable.
But as any true fan of the industry will tell you, this isn’t your grandfather’s airplane.
Recycling is an ongoing pursuit for aviation pioneers, from the X Prize for space travel to the proposals flying high at the UN this week.
So it’s no surprise to find a company promoting itself on the “amazing price” of its technology, selling its planes for $30 million each, building nothing but 30 new prototypes every year and using last year’s Lockheed plane flown by Jason Nesbitt to smash the world speed record for private passenger air travel on Thursday.
But none of this means it’s time to call it quits on old ideas or hippy-dippy fuel cells.
There is one project that absolutely refuses to give up: transforming air travel into carbon neutral, fuel-free aircraft.
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Set up in 2005 and initially focusing on retrofits, Silicon Valley-based company Terrafugia aims to deliver a ride capable of sustained supersonic travel — the perfect alternative to — erm, flight — from the present day.
No carbon emissions? Check.
The creators hope to transport people more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) in minutes, supersonically or at top speed, on specially designed hybrid aircraft, being tested on planes in New Mexico.
The dream: Led by aviation tycoon and Tech billionaire John Wiley, the team describes the new airplane, the TF-X (for “Transportation Research X”), as an “ornithopter” and a “spider” — among other things.
Among the many teasers, the company — listed on the NASDAQ, as well as in the company’s hallowed back catalogue — made an unusual announcement to its donors on Kickstarter last year. It had surpassed its goal of raising $650,000 for production. After selling a million units, the company says it’s confident it can deliver on its promise in 2021.
The TF-X is also, according to Terrafugia’s menagerie of teaser videos, called “Radioactive” and a “1st Generation Single Bomber” of drones.
This makes it clear just why the Terrafugia team — incredibly capable of attracting A-list backers, including Richard Branson — has boldly issued its ultimatum: “There are more than 750,000 people across the globe who will buy a TF-X. And they’ll pay for it. The X is already here.”
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Leaning on the hardware
Only a few concepts are made to-scale and built in 2018: one is the company’s last TF-X, flown this week by Jason Nesbitt, beating the world land speed record for private passenger flying.
The company claims its components were “rigorously validated using aircraft and marine testing facilities” and that, for those that were already confirmed, it “had its technology designed and manufactured in one of the world’s largest aircraft factories.”
Two to four teams can be made of a potential 100 million passengers, the company told CNN, with a unique tower station providing several outlets of revenue: their bio-based bi-fuel, for those with “agreed bio-fuel contribution agreements,” and “payments for users who receive [the demonstration] aircraft,” such as Nesbitt.
The plane’s titanium frame comes from Paolo Modiano, the same designer of the world’s fastest cruise missile. Some of the factory’s castings came from Berlin’s famous machine shop Abitapiano.
The former Rolls Royce CIIQ concept aircraft is being considered by Terrafugia as an example of future civilian aircraft. Source: Terrafugia
“From the plane’s cockpit door to the door handles, every single piece of equipment and other parts was originally a Formula 1 race car,” the company writes on its Kickstarter page.
But, aside from its state-of-the-art engines and awesome shape, it is clever engineering that sets the TF-X apart from other supersonic planes. Unlike the famous Aerion Arrow of the 1960s and 1970s, which was powered by a jet engine or rocket, the TF-X is fueled by gas from a fuel cell: nickel metal hydride is a liquid natural gas.
No carbon emissions, no kerosene, which are notorious greenhouse gas killers.
Another feature of the TS-X is its quick-release tail rotor. Smaller and tighter, this air flow reconfiguration helps pilots fly faster and, if needed, land without a runway.