Rolls Royce made headlines this month for completing the first flight of its electric plane in the U.K. But will this be the first of many, as the EV boom continues, and automotive and aviation companies race to create the most efficient and renewable energy-powered aircraft? Earlier this month, Rolls Royce announced it had completed a 15-minute flight of its first all-electric aircraft, as part of its Accelerating the Electrification of Flight program. This marked the beginning of the company’s extensive testing to better understand the performance potential of the new aircraft and part of its broader aim to support the net-zero carbon emissions national target.
The company announced that its Spirit of Innovation plane used a 400kw electric powertrain “with the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft.” The aim is to eventually achieve speeds of over 300 miles an hour. In addition, the aircraft’s three electric motors allow it to achieve a 90 percent energy-efficient flight.
Siemens’ Extra 330LE all-electric aircraft was the first to achieve a speed record at 212 mph in April 2017 and was later bought out by Rolls-Royce, which is developing on its existing technology to create faster planes.
Simon Burr, Rolls-Royce’s Director, Engineering & Technology – Civil Aerospace, stated of the speed aim “The interesting thing is, no one’s interested if you did 212.5 mph. You put all this effort in – it needs to be significant. So, our threshold is to get over 300 mph. This airplane is very aerodynamic, it’s very fast.”
The aircraft received 50 percent of its funding from the Aerospace Technology Institute alongside the U.K. government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and Innovate U.K.
While this presents a major advancement in all-electric aircraft technology, Rolls Royce is not the only company experimenting with renewable energy for powering aircraft. European budget airline EasyJet has partnered with Wright Electric to develop its electric flight technology. We are also seeing developments from NASA, in its X-57 Maxwell aircraft, Norway’s Avinor - Alpha Electro G2, and Equator Aircraft Norway, Israel’s Eviation, California-based Joby Aviation, and Ampaire, and Boeing and JetBlue's backing of Zunum Aero.
Related: Oil Prices Fall On First Crude Inventory Build In Eight Weeks Several companies have already tested the flight potential of their aircraft with ZeroAvia’s six-seater Piper M-class aircraft, powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell, being the first of its type in the world to complete a flight in 2020.
Airbus has also announced plans to manufacture several hydrogen-fuelled aircraft, releasing images of their concept planes in September 2020. The company expects to have the zero-emissions ZEROe planes up and running by 2035. This would mark a huge advancement in the technology, as the commercial aircraft would carry between 120 and 200 passengers, a massive leap from the current hydrogen-fuelled planes.
As aviation and aerospace companies race to develop these new technologies, they must decide which renewable source is the most effective and sustainable for the future of aviation. For example, in 2016, we saw the maiden flight of the Solar Impulse 2 aircraft, an entirely solar-powered plane with 17,000 solar cells, weighing just 2.4 tonnes and traveling at the slow speed of 45 mph. The plane completed its world voyage using just the power of the sun, showing that electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are not the only possibilities.
With governments pushing for green, aviation companies will be looking to maintain their market position while modernizing alongside the automotive industry. At present, the industry accounts for 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year. In response, the European Commission established the target of a 75 percent reduction in CO2 emissions per passenger kilometer, as well as a 90 percent drop in nitrous oxide emissions, by 2050.
As flights are expected to double over the next two decades, switching to electric and other renewable power sources will have a significant impact on this target. More importantly, we are seeing upward trends in the manufacturing and uptake of electric vehicles, with an anticipated EV fleet of 145 million in 2030, accounting for 7 percent of the road vehicle fleet. Meanwhile, electric aviation is lagging behind EV development.
Susan Ying, senior manager at electric aircraft company Ampaire explains of the lag, “If that trend continues, then aviation is going to become one of the top polluters in all industry sectors.” Further, “Aviation will become the final dinosaur, that does not clean up, if we don’t act right now,” she stated.
As we are seeing greater numbers of automotive, aviation, and aerospace companies start to develop electric, hydrogen, and other renewable energy-powered aircraft and technologies, there is hope yet for the electric plane to catch up with its EV counterpart. However, greater funding and innovation are needed from private companies and governments if we hope to see electric passenger aircraft and dramatically decrease carbon emissions over the next decade and beyond.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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