Austrian Students Win European Young Scientists Contest with "Advanced Deicing System" for Airplanes

bridges vol. 12, December 2006 / Feature Article

by Stefanie Baumgartner

 

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"There is a clear answer: I want to become a pilot," says Michael Kaiser when asked about his future career plans, "no matter where or how. The main thing is flying." His friend and research project partner, Johannes Kienl, has similar aspirations and also plans to become a professional pilot. Everything related to aviation seems to be the passion of those two young Austrians who recently got into the spotlight with a cutting-edge research project. The two 19-year-old hobby pilots have attracted a great deal of national and international attention with their invention of an "Advanced Deicing System" for aircraft, which has been awarded the first prize at this year's European Union Contest for Young Scientists .

Kaiser_Kienl_portrait_smallKaiser_Kienl_portrait_small "Although safety is undoubtedly the most important aspect of flying," Michael Kaiser points out, "scientists and engineers were not able come up with a satisfying solution for the problem of aircraft icing in the past." So when a civil engineering bureau introduced new, remarkably thin heater blankets to the senior students majoring in aeronautical engineering at the Secondary College for Mechanical Engineering in Eisenstadt ( HTBLA Eisenstadt ), the two students listened intently to the presentation. It was then that Michael Kaiser and Johannes Kienl conceived the idea - as brilliant as it was practical - to use these heater blankets for an electrically based airplane deicing system. And they set their sights high: to invent a new deicing system that "combines economy and safety at its best." Today, after winning national as well as international competitions with their senior research project and holding patents on their invention, they have certainly achieved much more than they would ever have dreamed of at the beginning of their project.

 

Aeronautical engineering in a nutshell
According to a study from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA ), 12 percent of all weather-related accidents of planes between 1990 and 2000 were caused by icing. Airplane icing, especially for smaller planes, is a significant hazard. It was the icing of the wings that led to fatal accidents such as the plane crash in 1959 "the day that music died" that killed Rock 'n' Roll legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson.

A380_smallA380_small To better understand how a deicing system on airplanes would work, one has to take a closer look at the basics of aeronautics. In order for a plane to fly, four forces must interact: thrust and drag, weight and lift. Thrust is the force generated by the airplane's engines that moves the plane forward. Thrust must exceed drag, the mechanical force pulling the plane backwards. Weight is the gravitational force pulling the plane towards the earth. The force that actually makes a plane take off from the ground is lift, the mechanical aerodynamic force acting perpendicular to the plane's forward motion. While the engines of an aircraft generate the forward motion of the plane, the wings are the main source of lift.

External factors, however, can jeopardize the lift of an airplane. One of these factors is the formation of ice on the airfoils, the plane's wings and all other horizontal and vertical stabilizers of an airplane. Ice can form on the outside of a plane whenever there is humidity and the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). "Icing occurs mainly up to an altitude of 5900-6500 feet (approximately 1800-2000 m)," Johannes Kienl explains, "because above this altitude there is not enough moisture in the air for ice to form on the airfoils. This means that the problem of icing affects a plane particularly during takeoff and landing."

So how can a thin layer of ice influence an aircraft's ability to fly? The shape and size of an aircraft's wings are designed specifically to facilitate aerodynamic lift, the physical phenomenon that makes an aircraft take off from the ground. By changing the shape and size of the wings, a layer of ice can disrupt the balanced state of the four forces and thereby impair the aircraft's ability to fly steadily. A 0.8 millimeter layer of ice on the airfoils of the plane increases drag and decreases lift by up to 25 percent, thereby creating an unstable state of flight.

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