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ELECTRIC AIRCRAFT? WILL IT HAPPEN IN OUR LIFETIME?

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The aircraft of the future is taking flight. Perhaps in 20 years time you will chartering an electric aircraft. Is is possible? Will is happen?

Why Don’t We Have Fully Electric Aircraft Now?

The roads are filled with electric cars, not just Tesla but the full variety of big brands. A new Formula E all-electric car racing series just started, culminating in a New York double-header next July. Electric cars have proven a sustainable alternative to petrochemical consumption. So why aren’t we already flying in electric planes? Mostly that’s due to limitations in battery power and capacity (keep reading for the details).

However, fully electric aircraft have been developed. A two-seat aircraft flew non-stop for 300 miles at 142 mph, climbing to 20,000 feet in less than two minutes. Okay, that’s no supersonic feat but the aircraft used a single battery and burned 25 kilowatts of electricity - that’s just over $15 in fuel costs. This e-Genius aircraft needs just a fifth of the energy required of a typical two-seat plane. And that dramatic cost saving has intensified the technological race. A whole new industry is up for grabs, ready to be cleaned up by the next best innovators.

The possibilities are mind-boggling. Electric planes will be able to climb to higher and maintain performance at altitudes where combustion engines start operating less efficiently. The price of flying will come down and a huge percentage of the world’s greenhouse emissions will be eliminated.

Electric Aircraft Under Development

Airbus were developing an electric aircraft called the E-Fan, which was due to hit the recreational market by 2017. In 2015 a prototype was successfully flown across the English Channel. However, development was subsequently cancelled. Instead, Airbus are developing a hybrid-electric regional jet in partnership with Rolls-Royce and Siemens, the E-Fan X. Boeing are developingtheir own SUGAR Volt concept plane, also a hybrid that is yet to be seen by the world.

There have been other successes. A solar-powered plane recently flew around the world, very slowly. Solar Impulse II took 16 months and 17 legs to complete the journey, and had an average air speed of 47 mph. NASA researchers are also innovating. They are experimenting with swapping out the piston engines from an Tecnam twin-engine plane and replacing them with lithium-ion batteries.

Why is it Such a Challenge to Develop an Electric Plane?

Electricity isn’t a new thing for aircraft. When E-Fan crossed the channel Airbus claimed it was a first. But the MacCready Solar Challenger achieved this all the way back in 1981. Back in World War II the B-29 Superfortress’s gun turrets were powered by electric motors. Over the last 60 years electrical power has replaced the hydraulic and pneumatic systems on many aircraft. Using electricity to control stabilizers and brakes means a lighter aircraft and lower fuel consumption.

So why is the technology curve so much steeper with planes compared to cars?

Electric Propulsion

An electrical aircraft engine is an entirely new proposition for machines that use jet propulsion. Conventional jet engines create forward thrust by sucking in air, compressing it, then mixing the air with fuel. But on an electric plane, batteries must power a motor than spin the propeller. It's simple, yes. But there's not much thrust and very little speed. NASA are currently developing the X-57, testing how electric propulsion technology can be improved and inform aviation performance. They also have a proposed project that will use 14 wing-mounted electric motors to simulate high-lift, as well as reducing the speed and distance an aircraft needs for take off.

Batteries

Electric cars were slow to hit the market because of how much the batteries cost. All that lithium-ion isn’t cheap, even if prices are now tumbling down. Electric aircraft have a far greater challenge: battery weight. For an aircraft to be successful the batteries will need to be ten times smaller and lighter than what’s currently available.

Here’s an example. When its tank is completely full, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner is carrying 223,000 pounds of jet fuel (that's 33,000 US gallons). To produce the same amount of energy using current technology, a lithium-ion battery pack would have to weigh 4.5 million pounds. Until battery technology advances it’s understandable to see why the major plane manufacturers are sticking to hybrid systems.

Another example: the Slovenian designed Taurus G4 was the first four-seat electric aircraft to go airborne. It was powered by just 450 pounds of lithium-polymer batteries, a realistic weight for future developments, but an extremely dangerous fire hazard. Incidentally, the Tauris G4 won the $1.65 million CAFE/NASA Green Flight Challenge.

Other Challenges

All that battery power produces an awful amount of heat. An electric aircraft’s thermal management system needs to capable of rejecting up to 800 kW of heat in flight. There will need to be a supercooled electronics and superconductivity to reduce all the electrical resistance.

What Could Electric Aircraft Mean For You

Carbon Emissions

The aviation industry is a major contributor to global warming (as much as many of us may hate to admit it). Last year more than 500 million tons of carbon dioxide was emitted into the atmosphere by airplanes. Imagine if that came down to zero. Or imagine that the International Civil Aviation Organization estimates turn out to be true - by 2050 aircraft CO2 emissions are going to climb above 1.5 billion tons. Electric aircraft promise a green future and although the challenge is steeper than electric cars, 2050 is a reasonable outlook for their regular use in commercial aviation.

Noise Emissions

Modern aircraft have dramatically improved in-cabin noise. To fly on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner you wouldn’t think so much fuel is being burned. Small- and mid-sized jets have also come a long way over the last 50 years. You no longer hear the plane when you are on board. But other people still do. By being near silent, electric aircraft would be able to fly and land closer to residential areas. Plus, they need shorter runways. So in 30 years time there could be a new tranche of airports within cities, meaning even more efficient journeys for those who fly air charter.

Cheaper Flights

Weight and fuel are enormous factors in the price of every flight you take. Electric aircraft cost less fuel. And it’s cheaper fuel as well. So put simply, when electric aircraft probably hit the market your flights are going to be cheaper. And that’s the big consumer win from all of this.

Chartering an Electric Aircraft

It’s not possible just yet. At Airvel we’re very excited by a number of commercial developments.

  • Financially backed by Boeing and JetBlue, Zunum Aero is developing a family of 10- to 50-seat hybrid aircraft that can cover 700 nautical miles.
  • Israeli start-up Eviation Aircraft is currently manufacturing a three-propeller electric plane to be used for regional business flights.
  • Ampaire are retrofitting existing aircraft with battery power, hoping to be FAA Par 135 certified for 7- to 9-seat aircraft by 2020.
  • Heavily funded startup Wright Electric aims to build a commercial aircraft that can fly 300 miles on battery power. Their two-seat prototype was a success and they’re now partnering with EasyJet to make a 180-seater aircraft by 2027.
  • Joby Aviation is attempting a five-seat plane that can do 150 miles on a single charge, which could transform short-haul business aviation.

Of course the Boeing and Airbus advancements interest us as well, but most air charters are in the small- to mid-sized jet range, so 8- to 50- seat aircraft could revolutionize the air charter market.

So it’s a case of watch this space. We’re certainly excited. At Airvel we believe anyone can fly private air charter. Making private aviation cheaper and greener works towards this goal of ours. You can’t charter an electric aircraft just yet, but you can the best deals on the world’s premier air charter booking engine.

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About Author

Peter Murray
Peter Murray

An aerospace engineer with over 30 years experience, Peter has been involved with some major aviation breakthroughs. For example, we was part of the team that designed the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. But you don't need to know what happened in the 80s. Peter now uses his technical knowledge as a director at one of the US's fastest growing aerospace companies.

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