NASA is best known for building rockets and spacecraft, but don't forget that "space" represents only one of the letters in the acronym. NASA also focuses on aeronautics, which means it's continually trying to improve the planes we travel in every day.
The most recent idea is called STARC-ABL, which stands for "Single-aisle Turboelectric Aircraft with an Aft Boundary-Layer propulsor." It's a terrible acronym, and for such a long-winded phrase you might expect something fancier than what it really is: an engine on the back of the plane.
NASA's idea is pretty straightforward: place a large turbofan engine on the rear of a plane, where it will collect the slow-moving air traveling along the plane's body. This lets the wing-mounted turbofans be built smaller, which means less drag and a higher fuel efficiency.
That by itself would mean a minor improvement to fuel use, but NASA decided to go a step further. The engineers also added generators to the wing-mounted turbofans, and the electricity generated by these engines is used to power the tail-mounted one. This means that the rear turbofan that provides much of the plane's thrust doesn't require any fuel to operate.
According to NASA, this means that the plane's engines use 10 percent less fuel using these improvements, which will translate to longer ranges for aircraft like Boeing's already long-range 787 Dreamliner.
NASA is starting to work with industry and academic leaders to turn this dream into reality. The agency issued grants to Boeing, the University of Georgia, and Liberty Works with ES Aero to develop working designs with the STARC-ABL concept. The long-term goal is to have a plane using this tech in the air within the next two decades, so you won't be seeing STARC-ABL on a working aircraft anytime soon. But this is an interesting glimpse into the future of commercial aviation, and NASA is appropriately leading the way.
(Avery Thompson - Popular Mechanics)