With so much talk of electric cars, it’s easy to overlook another segment of the transport industry that is seeing an influx of electric projects: aircraft. There are probably a dozen electric planes in development, and some are set to take flight soon. How long until we have an all-electric passenger fleet?
Most electric airplane projects are currently focusing on small aircraft, with room for one or two passengers. Here, among others, we have the Pipistrel Alpha Electro, a two-seater, and the NASA Maxwell, also a two-seater. China’s e-plane development isn’t far behind, and at the beginning of this month, China announced the maiden flight of an electric two-seater, which stayed in the air for two hours.
There are also slightly larger ones, such as the Eviation, which can transport between six and nine passengers, beginning in 2020. E-Genius, from the German Institute of Aircraft Design, is another notable member of the small-size e-plane family.
But what about larger ones? There are already a few in development. Earlier this year, startup Wright Electric said it was developing an e-plane that would be capable of seating 150 and flying up to 300 miles. With this range, media noted at the time, the Wright Electric plane would be able to service about a third of the world’s commercial routes. That would be a lot of jet fuel saved.
In September, EasyJet announced a partnership with Wright Electric in hopes of launching flights on e-planes within the next 10 years. These planes, which Wright Electric says would be 50 percent quieter than conventional aircraft, would also be 10 percent cheaper for airlines to purchase and operate. The 150-seater, however, is still pretty far off.
Wright Electric has so far completed a two-seater prototype, and it seems it still has a way to go until it scales this up to a 150-seater. One of the most significant challenges: batteries. The Eviation aircraft, for example, works with a whopping 6,000 pounds of batteries, and it’s only a six- to nine-seater. Extrapolating that out for how heavy the battery pack would need to be for a 150-seater, and you’ve got a large number, not to mention how many other things will need to be changed to keep its flight capability.
But technology is improving, the cost of lithium-ion batteries is falling, and efficiency is improving. At some point in the future, batteries—whether lithium-ion or some alternative—will become light enough and cheap enough to make electric aircraft a mainstream mode of transportation. Related: Shell Teams Up With Carmakers To Build Huge EV Charging Network
Until then it seems the air travel industry will follow in the footsteps of the car industry: first go hybrid, then go full-electric. Two recent announcements have drawn attention to hybrid planes. One is from Zunum Aero, a Seattle-based startup that is developing a 12-seater that will have a range of up to 700 miles and a new propulsion system that will have 80 percent lower emissions. The other is from Rolls Royce, Siemens, and Airbus, which are working on a passenger plane capable of seating 100 people, drawing its energy from a 2MW power plant.
It was only a matter of time before electric planes started emerging. Of course, there are unique challenges with planes that are absent with electric cars, but there are a lot of people working on them. It will take a while until the bigger ones start flying and making an actual difference in air transportation, but it seems that the time of the e-planes is coming.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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