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Electric planes are coming, but not yet jumbo jet size

Image source: Popularmechanics.com

From airlines in Brazil to those in the US, from DHL to FedEx, many companies in the transport of people and cargo are looking to electrify the skies

The aviation industry is under pressure to ditch fossil fuel in favor of less carbon-intensive means of propellers Washington-based electric aircraft maker Eviation is set to deliver for DHL Express United Airlines announced that it has invested in Swedish electric aircraft startup Heart Aerospace

From airlines in Brazil to those in the US, from DHL to FedEx, many companies in the transport of people and cargo are looking to electrify the skies.

Electric jumbo jets are not yet feasible.

Lilium, Azul produce eVTOLs in Brazil

A major commercial airline is in talks with the German all-electric aircraft startup Lilium to purchase 220 aircraft for $1 billion, according to a press release from the company.

It’s the arrival of commercial-grade electric aircraft but not until 2025. This comes amid mounting pressure on the aviation industry to ditch fossil fuel in favor of other, less carbon-intensive means of propelling their aircraft.

Both Lilium and the major airline, Azul, announced on Monday that they aim to build an electric vehicle takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft network throughout Brazil within four years.

“The aircraft we’re planning to launch will do 175 miles an hour,” said Lilium Chief Strategy Officer Alex Asseily, in an interview with CNBC. “The range will be 155 miles.”

At present, Lilium’s aircraft is a 5-seater design, but the model going into serial production for Azul will seat 7, Asseily mentioned in the press release, saying the production line for this deal is already 50% complete.

Image Source: Lilium.com

But it comes at a steep price. Lilium’s electric jets at roughly $4.5 million per shot, slightly higher than low-end private planes with comparable seating capabilities, at $3 million, according to The Street.

But as demand in Brazil or globally increases, prices will go down.  

Lilium does plan to jump-start commercial operations in the US and Europe. These rollout schedules are contingent upon Lilium’s receipt of crucial certification approval from various aerospace regulators of each country.

DHL goes electric with cargo planes

Washington-based electric aircraft maker Eviation is set to deliver for DHL Express, announcing recently that the logistics company has ordered 12 of Eviation’s fully electric Alice eCargo planes.

Eviation revealed in July that it has begun assembling the first production of a battery-powered Alice passenger plane and plans to fly it for the first time later this year.

DHL is aiming to deliver packages with a zero-emission fleet of planes, which are expected to be delivered in 2024.

According to Eviation, Alice can be flown by a single pilot and will carry 2,600 pounds (1,180 kgs). It will require 30 minutes or less to charge per flight hour and have a maximum range of up to 440 nautical miles, making it ideal for feeder routes.

Other parcel delivery companies are looking to reduce carbon emissions. As pointed out by CNBC, FedEx has set the goal of having carbon-neutral operations globally by 2040 and will spend more than $2bn initially in three key areas: vehicle electrification, sustainable energy, and carbon sequestration.

Amazon is also going big on the ground, investing billions in electric truck maker Rivian and committing to 100,000 of the startup’s delivery vans for its logistics fleet.

United Airlines goes electric

United Airlines announced that it has invested in Swedish electric aircraft startup Heart Aerospace. As part of the investment, the airliner agreed to buy 100 ES-19 electric planes from the company once their aircrafts meet United’s safety, business and operating requirements. The investment is part of the airline’s plan to reduce greenhouse emissions by 100% by 2050.

Mesa Airlines, which is partnering with United to bring electric planes into commercial service, has also conditionally agreed to add 100 ES-19s to its fleet.

The airline says the ES-19 aircraft will be larger than competing electric planes, seating up to 19 passengers, and fly up to 250 miles on a charge. 

United said it is confident Heart will have the ES-19s ready for market by 2026 and that once operational, the electric aircraft could potentially fly as many as 100 of United’s regional routes.  

Electric jumbo jets

For jumbo jets, the future of fully electric flight is a few decades away. If a jumbo jet were to use today’s batteries, 1.2 million pounds (554,000 kgs) of batteries would be required just to generate the power of the jet engine it would be replacing. This weight would effectively need an additional eight jet planes just to carry that weight!

Airline manufacturer Boeing has already estimated that they are still several decades away from getting a 777-sized plane up in the air with just electricity.

For jet planes, the industry is now looking for ways to integrate more electricity into certain functions of the plane while retaining the design of the jet-fueled engines.

Eventually, jet planes could evolve into hybrid vehicles, much like cars with both a jet engine and an electric motor. Both would provide propulsion for the aircraft.

Hybrid-electric airline manufacturers like Ampaire say that hybrid planes cut down on operational and maintenance costs.

Image source: FT

The Electric Eel is a hybrid plane in which the forward piston engine of a Cessna is replaced by an electric motor powered by a battery, making it a parallel hybrid configuration. It first flew in 2019.

The limitations on longer flights, however, would depend on big breakthroughs in battery technology, including necessary battery weight reductions to improve its practical use.