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Rethinking jet engines to make commercial aviation less of a threat to the climate (and the human respiratory system).

With the skies becoming ever more crowded, scientists have increasingly focused on the environmental damage that commercial jetliners produce. Indeed, a 2010 MIT study estimated that aircraft emissions, including tiny particles that cause lung and heart disease, kill about 10,000 people a year—more than 10 times as many as airplane crashes. While commercial aviation generates only about 2% of global carbon emissions, scientists believe they have an outsized impact on climate change because they’re released in the upper atmosphere. That problem will only get worse with a projected 77% increase in the number of commercial aircraft by 2030, to 46,000.

United Technologies, through its Pratt & Whitney division, this year introduced a new commercial jet engine that provides relief on multiple fronts. Compared to the company’s own traditional engine, it cuts fuel burn and carbon dioxide emissions by 16%, slashes the release of particulates in half, and dramatically muffles engine roar. For each plane, that means 3,600 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide generated annually, $1 million in annual savings on fuel, and 500,000 fewer airport neighbors who will hear each takeoff.

The new engine is called a geared turbofan, for the addition of an internal gearbox that allows the fan blades and the turbine that spins them to rotate at different, optimal speeds. UTC says it spent 20 years and $10 billion developing the technology for commercial aircraft. The engines are already in use on mid-sized, single-aisle jets in Europe and Asia. UTC says it has received orders to equip 4,100 planes, from 70 customers in more than 30 countries. A GE partnership has developed a comparably efficient conventional engine, called the Leap. But future iterations of UTC’s geared turbofan engine are expected to generate considerably greater savings: for the planet and airlines, as well our lungs and ears. Indeed, UTC has already promised a modest upgrade for 2021—and other manufacturers (including Rolls Royce) are reportedly researching geared-turbofan engines themselves. “It’s a significant breakthrough,” says Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group. “In many ways, it is the future.”

Company Information

Impact Segment
Environmental Impact
Aerospace & Defense
Gregory J. Hayes
Company Type
Revenues ($M) (Last Fiscal Year)$61,047
Profits ($M) (Last Fiscal Year)$7,608
Market Value ($M)$90,489