Is the future of air travel as we know it today coming to an end? Are we going back to the ages where travelling across continents would take weeks, if not months? If we continue on the same track as we are at the moment (without any thought for the future), then it might as well happen. May not be tomorrow, or next week, or next year or even next decade. But it will eventually happen in 30 to 40 years time. Don't believe it. Read on...
Fossils fuels if used at the current rate (which will increase in the next decade or two) will eventually run out. The reserves that are easily accessible are slowly shrinking. It was during the last decade the World's oil production had peaked. Finding new reserves is not getting easier. Other forms like permafrost (Methane hydrates), oil sands, etc are not easy and cheap to lay our hands upon. Furthermore, development of energy renewables is not moving at a pace for people to take notice. It is not cheap either. Government grants and subsidies are still needed for the energy generated from renewables to compete with the energy from fossil fuels.
We have enough energy that comes from our Sun everyday that will support our entire planet's energy needs many times over. However, the current technologies are not mature enough in terms of cost and efficiency to tap the solar energy and store it in an efficient manner. There are companies in the US in the field of R&D and production for tapping and storing Solar power, declaring bankruptcy (about three in month of August 2011 even with help from the US government) which doesn't breed confidence. The reason for the failure of these companies may be manifold, but it is more to do with lack of human will to serve the humanity and make a difference to the lives of billions of humans on this planet. Short term greed taking precedence over long term benefit for the human civilisation.
If this was to continue, one day we would end up with no fossil fuels to fly our airplanes. Remember fossil fuels are not only used to fly airplanes, but also for all known transportation (leaving aside bicycles, carts or sledges pulled by animals, horses in the wild west and camels in the desert), both on land and sea (though there are nuclear submarines) and also for building everything that comes from plastic. Come to think about it. If we look around us, right from Mobile phones, TVs, Washing machines, Conventional Ovens, Microwave ovens, Coolers, Air Conditioners, Computers, Cars, Watches, there is plastic in each of them in some shape or form. The day the fossil fuels run out will probably bring an end to everything that we hold and use today. That includes air travel as we know it today.
Forms of energy like nuclear hasn't done itself any favours with the Fukushima disaster. Tidal and wind energy aren't doing too well either. These forms of energy are seasonal and not reliable like the solar energy.
The solution is, if one were to build solar farms in the sunniest parts of the planet, there is great reason to believe that one day our planet's entire energy needs could be met. This can be done if the governments around the world come together and invest in the project on a global scale. The huge tracts of waste land and deserts around the world can be used to build these farms. The most likely places would be parts of US, South America, Africa, Middle east, Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan and China, Far east and Australia. Some of the warmer countries in Europe like, Portugal, Spain, Italy, could also chip in. What would this mean? This would simply mean that all the energy needs for surface transportation, homes, offices, factories, industries could be met by Solar energy. For that cars need to become electric and so does other means of transport. There is no way a Solar powered aircraft could be built to fly passengers or for that matter any other form that is safe and reliable, at least in the foreseeable future.
Thus, fossil fuels starting from 2020 needs to rationed to be used exclusively for Air travel and for manufacturing of items needing plastics. This will keep use going atleast to the turn of the century if not more.
Eventually fossil fuels will run out completely, how much ever we wish otherwise. That would mean that alternative forms of fuel needs to be identified to fly our airplanes and alternative materials to build items needing plastic. Certainly we can't go back to wood. We will have to hope that someone, someday will come up with a material that will replace plastic.