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European research to reduce volcanic ash impact

As a new outburst by an Icelandic volcano threatens once again to bring European air transport to a standstill, the European Commission is supporting research into the impact of ash on aircrafts in flight. The aim is to be able to respond more effectively to such rare but high-impact events.

Tags: Air
All clear for European air transport © Peter Gutierrez

Although much is known about the effects of plain dust and sand on airplane engines, ashes pose specific problems that have so far stayed largely unexplored. The comparatively rare occurrence of volcanic eruptions makes it an unappealing topic for individual researchers in the field of aeronautics to dedicate time and money to. To create the necessary critical mass of scientists, the European Commission is supporting research into the effects of ashes on airplanes in flight.

Threshold levels for ashes are used to decide whether or not planes may still take off. During the previous ash cloud crisis of 2010, thresholds varied by as much as a factor ten: from 0.2 mg per m3 to 2 mg per m3. Better knowledge of how many ashes an airplane really can stand could prevent both hazardous flights and the unnecessary suspension of air traffic.

In its Work Programme for 2012 for air transport and aeronautics research under the Seventh Framework Programme, the European Commission is making available a budget of up to €5 million for scientists who develop knowledge that can help determine a precise threshold of ashes under which flying can still be considered safe.

European research projects, such as NEWACexternal link, have been trying to understand what happens when ash enters an aircraft engines since mid-2010. Under this project, research institutions and companies from across Europe are pooling their knowledge to solve a part of the puzzle.

Ultimately, say EU officials, this kind of work aimed at developing more accurate ash thresholds will minimise economic loss and passenger discomfort.