Want to know a sobering fun fact? A roundtrip flight from New York to San Francisco generates one-sixth of the carbon emissions than an average Joe creates in a year. In other words, jet engines play a huge part in speeding up climate change.
All that jet fuel takes a toll. But electric planes may someday rule, hopefully. So, instead of producing hundreds of carbon emissions just from a single flight, an emission-free aircraft could fly at the same distance.
Companies, such as Tesla and Toyota have succeeded in making the masses believe in the electric cars’ potential. But this time, various companies are starting to test electric planes’ future.
Aviation startups are working to eliminate expensive and harmful jet fuel from the equation and replacing it with rechargeable batteries. The concept of electric planes isn’t new, but we’re getting closer than you could ever imagine, thanks to the latest battery innovations.
Electric flight was first tested in the 1880s, and since then, innovations and trends have kept on coming. French engineers have succeeded in adding batteries and an electric motor to an aircraft. Then in the 70s, electric and solar power exploration got a jumpstart. Over the past years, electric flights were made, lasting from 20 minutes to several days; and continues to this day, but with passenger flights.
This new wave of R&D comes as jet fuel prices have skyrocketed, and foreign regulators have put out calls to reduce emissions. Globally, 5% of emissions come from flying. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) wants a carbon-neutral world as soon as possible, but something has to be done to achieve that goal.
The Race For Commercialization
Everyone wants to get a slice of the cake. So, hubs for electric flight have popped up in different parts of the world including Germany, America, Israel, and other parts of Europe.
And while aviation startups are eager to put their concepts into practice, it’s still in the early phase. Instead of only two people like the German e-Genius flight, the electric plane industry aims to be on par with commercial flights one day. So far, the e-Genius flight carrying two people was the longest one.
Other startup companies like Ampaire and Wright Electric are working on regional travel. Ampaire wants to retrofit a passenger plane into an electric hybrid craft called TailWind, while Wright Electric’s Jeffrey Engler is modeling his aircraft after the planes you commonly see from the airport. His company aims for a range of 300 miles or less.
Even though they are just puny airplanes, it’s already a big achievement to get a handful of people to travel several hundred miles while relying on rechargeable batteries.
This recent boom in electric flight comes with a long list of startups in an industry that came from scratch. Unlike the endless upstarts of smartphone apps and biotech innovation, aircraft manufacturing is mostly dominated by establishments.
Such players include an Israeli firm Eviation that specializes in models with wingtips to take off, Germany’s Lilium with its EVTOL taxi jet, and Zunum Aero, which focuses on making hybrid planes. But Eviation CEO Bar-Yohay said that the “competition” is more on collaborative work than being truly competitive. For him, it’s better to work together – passing information and solutions with each other – so that everyone can avoid bad decisions and help get closer to a common goal, as fast as possible.
Electric Planes – Charging Ahead
Electric planes use batteries to power their engine. Other than batteries, they need a motor that can turn electrical energy into mechanical energy. That’s why companies are working together to develop innovations on batteries, wings, electric motors, and even propellers.
Bar-Yohay compares electric planes to their fuel-powered counterparts. Instead of building fossil fuel-hungry engines and radiators, electric planes need to be designed around batteries. However, batteries don’t have the energy density of fuel, so Eviation developed a large one weighing 3.8 tons which is 60% of the plane’s total weight. A traditional plane devotes 30% of its total weight just for fuel.
Electric batteries are excellent in providing short bursts of power because they use the charge to power an electric motor when magnetic forces interact on a rotor. Using rechargeable cells completely eliminates fuel costs. Electric batteries are also low on maintenance since they don’t have gearboxes to continuously degrade the engine.
Jet engines, which have very high RPMs, wear down fast. Traditional jet engines work by sucking in air and mixing it with fuel to start combustion thru the turbine, thus powering the engine.
On the contrary, electric is quieter and greener, opening up possibilities for aviation flight in urban and residential areas.
Electric Planes – What’s In A Name?
Passenger Drones, EVTOLS, hybrid-electrics, flying cars, flying pods, and flying taxis. These are just some forms of an electric airplane. Usually, these electric airplanes are intended to fly a handful of people at a time. Each one is unique on its own, sometimes featuring only subtle differences.
Smaller contraptions change the playing field, but the electric aviation industry is proposing for long-distance commuting on a whole new level, as far as running on electric power is concerned. Air New Zealand is planning to use electric taxi planes for shorter trips throughout New Zealand. It will be using Cora planes but hasn’t set a launch date yet.
To add more to the list of electric aircraft, there are also helicopters like the SureFly, a small helicopter drone that’s expected to arrive in the near future. Then there are hybrids, which utilize electric and gas power. Zunum Aero is developing a 12-seater hybrid aircraft that is expected to fly in a couple more years.
It’s not just a matter of replacing the internal combustion engine then setting off on the horizon. And there are many more challenges that will come before electric planes find their way towards commercialization. Samuel Engel, ICF senior vice president, sees the idea of electric passenger planes as in the “experimental” phase. He believes that it is yet to become a commercial electric aircraft. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing electric planes anytime soon since there are startups who are dedicated to making them possible. He pointed out that R&D in the aviation industry is slow and conservative because no one wants to see planes falling out of the sky.
Weight is a big problem that needs to be addressed. Next is the jet fuel’s energy density, or how much energy you can get out of a source – even if the electric is more efficient in turning energy into motion. Since electric planes carry batteries, their weight remains the same and needs to be recharged from time to time. As for the obstacles, limited power and power sources, airport infrastructure, and regulatory hurdles must be carefully looked upon.
Then There Are The Batteries…
Ampaire’s project promises some high-energy density cells that would store energy onboard as you fly. It’s like a solar battery pack, but without the need for the sun. Motors nowadays can provide lots of power with little weight, maximizing efficiency.
However, some groups of analysts believe that hybrids electric planes are more likely to succeed than their all-electric counterparts.
An Electric Future
Each company has its own ambitious goals for success. Ampaire is speeding things to get its six-seater up, while Wright is quietly developing a much larger aircraft for commercial use.
Eviation has set 2022 to allow regular customers to buy a ticket for an all-electric commuter flight, while Lilium says by 2025 is customers are expected to be booking taxi planes. Aside from them, Uber’s EVTOL is expected to be commercially available by 2023.
Realistically, a true electric flight that’s capable of taking passengers from continent to continent is 20 years off. However, there’s still so much to happen to get to that point, and that’s just being generous.
If these work out, they could really become a game-changer for saving the environment. Until then, you’ll need to work on your carbon footprint here on the ground. Your car might not emit as much as an airplane, but it’s still a lot.
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