A new study says that within three years jumbo jet–makers could be testing a new type of wing that reduces midair drag and cuts fuel costs by an estimated 20 percent. The wing would do this using small, built in jets that redirect air around the wing during flight.

"This has come as a bit of a surprise to all of us in the aerodynamics community," Duncan Lockerby, an associate professor of fluid-solid mechanics at the University of Warwick in the U.K. and head of the research project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and aircraft maker Airbus, said in a statement. "It was discovered, essentially, by waggling a piece of wing from side to side in a wind tunnel."

Lockerby acknowledged that he and his team weren't sure exactly how the small jets actually reduce drag, but they're building prototypes they hope will be ready for testing as early as 2012 and will eventually reduce surface friction drag by up to 40 percent.

Part of this learn-as-they-go approach stems from the Advisory Council for Aeronautical Research in Europe's (ACARE) goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions from passenger aircraft in half by 2020, Lockerby notes on Warwick's Web site.

Airlines and aircraft makers are already experimenting with biofuels to cut the amount of greenhouse gases their aircraft emit high in the atmosphere. Virgin Atlantic Airlines, the U.S. Air Force, Airbus, and Florida-based Green Flight International are testing coconut and babassu oils mixed with regular petroleum-based jet fuel as well as "synfuel" liquid jet fuel made from coal or natural gas.

Cargo ships are also turning to new technology in an attempt to reduce drag and cut fuel costs, including an experimental approach that pumps air about 25 feet (less than 10 meters) below the waterline into subsurface cavities—broad, shallow recesses built into the underside of the ship's hull—creating buoyant pockets that help ships slip more easily through the sea surface.

Image © Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)