Google Research, American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy are working together to reduce the number of contrails emitted by airplanes. This has now been achieved in a test series of 70 test flights over the past six months, Google said. The three companies see this as an important contribution to climate protection, since contrails contribute to global warming.
The pilots avoided altitudes during the flights where contrails are more likely to occur, according to Google. To do this, they were able to use forecasts that Google Research calculated using AI and machine learning from weather data and satellite images, and which were compared with models from Breakthrough Energy. The test flights were analyzed with images from satellites, and the researchers found that the contrails could be reduced by 54 percent.
Contrails are made up of water vapor and exhaust gases emitted by airplanes. Soot particles that are also contained can act as condensation nuclei at high altitudes, the water molecules freeze to form ice crystals and cirrus clouds. These can remain in the atmosphere for up to several hours. The aim of the test flights was to avoid regions in which contrails form due to the favorable relative humidity.
Few flights cause the most streaks
In Japan, for example, researchers assumed that a good 2 percent of the commercial flights there cause 80 percent of the contrails. If such flights were directed to different altitudes, contrails could be avoided with only a minimal increase in kerosene consumption.
While contrails reflect sunlight back into space, they also prevent thermal radiation from leaving the Earth, especially at night to a greater extent, resulting in net warming. According to the World Climate Report 2022, cirrus clouds, which form from contrails, account for 35 percent of the climate-relevant impacts of aviation. 56 percent result from CO₂ emissions, almost 9 percent from NOx emissions.
Alternative fuels can reduce CO₂ emissions, but this development is likely to take a long time, while AI-controlled flight guidance would be more applicable and also relatively inexpensive, argues Google Research. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are also working on algorithms that can guide airplanes through areas where contrails are less likely to occur.
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