Sustainability and net-zero emissions have reached the aviation industry, where start-ups, major aircraft manufacturers, aerospace engine makers, and even NASA are developing and testing battery-powered aircraft.
The world’s first all-electric commuter aircraft is getting ready for its first flight, which is expected to take place within weeks, courtesy of the company Eviation. Eviation’s Alice all-electric aircraft has a maximum range of 440 nautical miles (just over 500 miles). Battery technology is much more difficult to perfect in airplanes than in cars, not only considering the range of the battery but also the weight of the battery pack, which, currently, is a big drawback toward electric planes becoming competitive to large passenger aircraft.
An actual electric aircraft with the capacity and technology to fly as many passengers as the aircraft running on jet fuel is a decade, or probably even more, away.
Still, start-ups and legacy aerospace companies are working to develop all-electric aircraft, and some say they are ready for the first flight.
One is Eviation’s Alice, which underwent engine testing north of Seattle last week. The aircraft is weeks away from its first flight, Eviation CEO Omer Bar-Yohay told CNN Business.
Eviation has designed three Alice versions—a commuter one to fly nine passengers, a six-passenger executive configuration, and a cargo configuration.
Unveiling the executive configuration in December, Eviation Vice President of Sales Jessica Pruss said, “It is electrifying to introduce the design today and announce that we are currently taking orders for the aircraft that will be delivered in 2026.”
The cargo configuration also has orders, as DHL Express ordered last year 12 fully electric Alice eCargo planes from Eviation, which expects to deliver the Alice electric aircraft to DHL Express in 2024.
Other aerospace companies are also working on electric airplanes.
NASA and GE Aviation announced in 2021 a new research partnership, aiming to conduct ground and flight tests of a megawatt (MW) class hybrid-electric propulsion system by the mid-2020s. As part of NASA’s Electric Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) project, $260 million will be invested by NASA, GE Aviation, and partners over five years to accelerate the introduction of hybrid electric flight technologies for commercial aviation.
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This week, GE Aviation said it had selected Boeing to support flight tests of the hybrid-electric propulsion system using a modified Saab 340B aircraft and CT7-9B turboprop engines.
“Working with GE Aviation, we will make a significant impact on the advancement of electrified propulsion for commercial air transport,” said Per Beith, president and CEO of Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences.
Aerospace engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce said last month that its all-electric ‘Spirit of Innovation’ aircraft is officially the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft, having set two new independently confirmed world records.
“This is another milestone that will help make ‘jet zero’ a reality and supports our ambitions to deliver the technology breakthroughs society needs to decarbonize transport across air, land and sea,” said Rolls-Royce CEO Warren East said.
Apart from major advances in battery and propulsion technology, the all-electric passenger aircraft will also need clearly stated regulation from aviation authorities. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for example, is still working on guidelines and adding a regulatory framework for electric airplanes.
“Some certifications could require the FAA to issue special conditions or additional airworthiness criteria, depending on the type of project. Determining qualifications for these aircraft is an ongoing process,” an FAA spokesperson told CNN.
Commercial passenger aircraft is at least a decade away, analysts say.
If all-electric commuter and charter airplanes take off, then it could be the turn of electric commercial passenger aircraft.
“For that we need Boeing or Airbus to come out with an actual electric airplane. I would see that in about 10 years,” Ross Aimer, CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, told CNN.
While aerospace companies try to figure out the all-electric aircraft, oil majors are looking at a far less costly solution for net-zero flights—sustainable aviation fuel. BP is collaborating with British Airways on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), Shell targets at least 10 percent of its global aviation fuel sales to be SAF by 2030, while TotalEnergies launched SAF production at its a Mède biorefinery in southern France and its Oudalle facility near Le Havre last year.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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Moreover, carrying a number of very large and heavy batteries on board is neither practical nor safe. Furthermore, the emissions from making and de-commissioning lithium batteries are estimated to match if not exceed those from jet fuel.
An electric passenger plane powered by solar energy isn't a reliable option given the intermittent nature of solar electricity.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London