Chinese scientist plans parachutes for every plane passenger made of world's lightest material

Development of carbon aerogel, the world's lightest material, has made providing aeroplane passengers with parachutes a possibility

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 11:44am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 11:35am

Creating a parachute as small and as light as a shirt is now possible, says a Chinese scientist who has developed the world's lightest material with cutting-edge nanotechnology.

Zhejiang University professor Gao Chao said the development of the material, known as carbon aerogel, had boosted the possibility of parachutes one day becoming standard safety equipment on civilian airplanes.

The new material also makes it possible for parachutes to be shaped other than like an umbrella, and could even have its user warmly and securely wrapped within it, Gao said.

The Hangzhou-based professor of polymer science and engineering led the government-funded study in creating the world's lightest material last year.

Carbon aerogel, which weighs just 0.16 milligrams per cubic centimetre, is so light that it can sit on a blade of grass without causing it to bend. The material had the potential to be used in a wide range of sectors, Gao said.

A standard-sized aerogel parachute of about 20 square metres in length and half a metre thick would weigh less than 200 grams - about the weight of cotton shirt. The material is also highly elastic and so can be compressed, making it easy to pack.

Supplying a 300-seat Boeing 777 jetliners with aerogel parachutes for each of its passengers would add just 60kg to the airplane's estimated 300-tonne take-off weight, Gao said.

An aerogel parachute could be worn as a T-shirt, and when needed, could be released to form a sphere of more than three metres in diameter, which would significantly slow down its user's speed of descent and absorb impact on landing, the professor said.

The material would also keep its user warm because of its good insulation capability, he added.

"Some manufacturers have contacted us to develop a new type of clothing with the technology," Gao said.

But he added that some technological improvement was still necessary, such as to make the aerogel stronger and hardier, before the material could be used for parachutes.

"I am optimistic that these technological constraints can be overcome," the professor said. "[As of now,] the chance of [the material's application] is greater with the military."

The ultra-small and light parachute would give military tactical units more flexibility in their operations, Gao said. Troops could, for instance, "parachute off a mountain top" to attack an enemy base, catching them by surprise, he said.

Its use in civilian airplanes, however, still needed more time as most passengers would have neither the training nor experience to operate a standard parachute during an emergency.

A passenger might also accidentally activate a parachute during a smooth flight, causing unnecessary chaos on the plane.

"In many accidents, the airplane crashed with all doors closed. So with or without a parachute wouldn't make any difference to passengers," Gao said.

"But if the plane disintegrated in mid-air, like if it were hit by a missile, the parachutes would give some passengers a chance of survival.

"Those with flight panic may also find mental relief by wearing a parachute throughout a flight."

Qi Yun, a life-saving equipment research scientist with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, said the new technology had made providing parachutes on civilian airlines more feasible.

Some materials and technology had already been tested and proven reliable on military airplanes, he said.

"The barrier is no longer technical, but administrative," Qi said. "The parachute issue is a taboo topic in the civil aviation industry. Airlines have long had an unspoken agreement that parachutes should not be provided on a scheduled flight."

Airlines were worried that if equipped with parachutes, passengers might request for doors to be opened and try to leave the plane mid-flight, Qi said. "If all passengers followed suit, it could lead to deadly chaos."

Passengers might be allowed to bring and wear their own parachutes in future if the items did indeed become small and convenient enough, but there were still other concerns, Qi said.

"That would certainly ease some passengers' flight panic. But to other passengers and airport security, the passenger wearing a parachute might look suspicious," he said.

"I don't think an airline today would allow such passengers on board as long as it would make other passengers without the parachute nervous."

The scientist said some private jets were already equipped with parachutes, but "to fly with a parachute today, you need to be either rich or privileged".