Complex Made Simple

Electric planes: A revolution in flying is ready for take off

It’s no longer about flying taxis with light enough loads to allow batteries to carry 4-5 passengers on board on short distances, but soon large electric aircraft will be cruising the skies across oceans

Aviation is responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources, compared to 74% from road transport NASA is partnering with the FAA to come up with certification standards and make electric flight a reality EU’s goal is to reduce CO2 emissions in the aviation industry by 75% by 2050

Electric vehicles we get it. Same with electric bikes, scooters, and everything wingless.

But planes with nothing to fuel them but some high-tech battery and an energy friendly concoction some scientist dreamt up and put together in a wind tunnel? 

You’d better believe it. 

What’s also fueling this technology to fly the nest are discussions on the implications of climate change and how carbon emissions are affecting the environment, leading to initiatives to decarbonize the aviation industry. And this despite jet aircraft today being over 80% more fuel-efficient per seat kilometer than 1960s jets, according to the Air Transport Action Group.

It’s no longer about flying taxis with light enough loads to allow batteries to carry 4-5 passengers on board on short distances, but soon large electric aircraft will be cruising the skies across oceans. 

Currently, over 70 aviation companies are planning the first flight of electric air vehicles (EAVs) by 2024, and more than 200 start-ups are working on building some sort of electric aircraft, according to Bob Buddecke, the vice president of power systems for Honeywell Aerospace.

Read: Low Cost airlines are making noise. Turbulence in the air?

Emission control

Aviation is responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources, compared to 74% from road transport, according to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). 

It contributes about 2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans

In 2018, flights produced 895 million tons of CO2, aided by low-cost travel allowing startups, and digital nomads to enjoy cruising the world on a mission at high altitude.

Read: EV vs. Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle: Why you should you make the switch to electric

Current electric aviation initiatives

Higher education institution initiative Cambridge Zero is combining a full range of research and policy expertise in order to help create a zero-carbon future and cover 80% of the UK’s future aerodynamics technology needs. 

initiatives such as the Cambridge-MIT Silent Aircraft Initiative and the NASA N+3 Project are developing novel aircraft architectures with the potential of reducing CO2 emissions by approximately 70%. 

An N+3 technology level engine, suitable as a propulsion system for an advanced single-aisle transport, while Cambridge researchers are working on applications that include the development of electric and hybrid-electric aircraft, the generation of power from the tides and low-grade heat like solar energy, and hydrogen-based engines. 

According to Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle Laboratoryworld leading turbomachinery research lab at the University of Cambridge, the researchers are looking the next generation of jet engines such as Rolls-Royce’s UltraFan engine, which will enable CO2 emission reductions of no less than 25% by 2025. 

Accel, Rolls-Royce powered new electric demonstrator aircraft’s flight testing is scheduled to begin rather soon in a 2020 flight over the UK. It is set to become the world’s fastest electric-powered aeroplane with a first flight targeting a new air-speed record of more than 300mph, flying 200 miles on a single charge. This is the same distance from Paris to London and the equivalent energy needed to power 250 homes.

The current speed record for an aircraft powered by electricity is 213 mph and was set in 2017 by Germany’s Extra Aircraft 330LE powered by a Siemens electric motor. 

Rolls-Royce says its project plane will feature the most power-dense pack of batteries ever build.

Some small electric planes have completed test flights, but most of the focus is on hybrid planes, and that’s because batteries are still far heavier and less efficient than jet fuel. 

NASA is partnering with the FAA to come up with certification standards and make electric flight a reality. Until then, companies like Uber are partnering with electric flight start-ups to experiment with air taxis and what’s known as vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.

Airbus also recently announced Air Race E, which will also take place in 2020 and will mark the world’s first all-electric airplane race where plane are expected to reach more than 300 mph.  

Read: Get ready for I-PACE, Jaguar’s all-electric SUV

Electric battery development 

Similar to electric cars, widespread adoption of electric planes will largely depend on the advancement of battery technology. Batteries for electric vehicles are mostly measured by Wh/kg (watt-hours per kilogram). Current lithium-ion batteries are capable of between 100-265 Wh/kg. That’s not bad for a Tesla, but the ratio needs to be improved for large, gravity-defying commercial aircraft.

Oxis Energy is developing a lithium-sulfur battery that could potentially provide upwards of 500 Kw/kg.  

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimate that such an increase “will cut the total system weight in half, enough to extend flying range by 50 to 100%.”

While the world waits for battery technology to improve, hybrid solutions are moving forward. The E-Fan X developed by Airbus, Rolls Royce, and Siemens features three traditional turbofans powered by jet fuel and one powered by electric motor. EU’s goal is to reduce COemissions in the aviation industry by 75% by 2050.

In the US, Boeing and JetBlue have backed hybrid aircraft manufacturer Zunum Aero, which is developing regional aircraft with up to 50 seats that runs on a hybrid power train. Batteries in the wings power the planes while the aircraft “sip fuel only when they have to.”