The Future of Sustainable Aviation

Hawaii just celebrated our 50th birthday as a State in the Union. Just about two years after attaining statehood, Barack Obama was born in Honolulu. Today, he is President of the United States, and, thirty-seven years his senior, Daniel Inouye, is Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Arguably, Hawaii, then, has the two most powerful elected officials in the Nation.

Perhaps because we are the most isolated population center on Earth, we have the highest life expectancy of any state. Our weather is ideal, we are a model for racial harmony and are, truly, nice.

Like anywhere else, though, we are suffering from the global economic collapse, with politics and personality prevailing over working together for a common cause. Our unique problem is that our revenue base is almost totally dependent on tourism. We have tried, but have failed at diversifying our economy.

Most of my HuffPosts have been on energy and the environment, on Peak Oil and Global Warming. There is every reason to believe that at some point in the future, say, ten to 20 years, and, perhaps, much sooner, the price of crude oil will zoom past $150/barrel. Jet fuel will become so expensive, that tourists will stop coming to our state. Hawaii will become the first state to enter into a prolonged depression.

It's not that we have been totally asleep. In the mid-70's, studies were performed by the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, advocating the development of next-generation aviation systems, including the hydrogen jetliner. I thus went to work for U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga in 1979 and drafted the first hydrogen legislation introduced in the Senate. Funds for hydrogen were zero then, but last year exceeded the solar budget. The National Aerospace Plane, which was supposed to be hydrogen powered, was initiated by the Department of Defense, but today remains a black (secret) program. Why hydrogen? Because it provides the highest energy per unit weight, and can be produced from renewable sources, such as wind power, geothermal energy and ocean thermal energy conversion.

In parallel, we have long been researching the potential of biofuels, including jet fuel, from algae. Unfortunately, funding for this field has been limited and, while a few start-up companies are promising to produce $1/gallon fuels from microorganisms, specialists in this field tell me that we are a decade away, at best, and maybe never, of being competitive with fossil fuel options.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will spend $100 million over the next few years to evaluate this field, but the reality is that we should be spending a billion dollars annually. Three-quarters of the energy used by our military goes to jet fuel.

While there are several fanciful air systems bandied about in various publications, one in particular, the Hawaiian Hydrogen Clipper, a hydrogen-powered dirigible potentially capable of flying at 350 MPH (none of the other blimps go anywhere close to this speed), proposed by Rinaldo Brutoco, President of the World Business Academy, I think shows the most promise. In particular, he sees Hawaii as the ideal lead for this effort. (This concept is mentioned in my Huffington Post article of December 18.)

There is general consensus that the following represents where the Nation and World stand regarding clean energy:

1. There has been good progress on electricity from renewables.

2. Sustainable ground transport options are in advanced stages of development.

3. Sensible next generation aviation systems have been largely ignored.

As Hawaii is the site in greatest jeopardy, with high interest from the military, it should be justifiable for Senator Inouye and President Obama to provide $1 billion/year to develop the National Hydrogen Clipper through the Department of Defense. This should become a program for international collaboration, for the whole world will soon, also, be in trouble if nothing is done about the future of aviation.