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The future of electric planes and electric aviation


The race is on to create new, carbon-neutral jets that could transform the aviation industry. Could electric planes be the answer? Here’s a look at the advantages of electric aviation, the design challenges involved and some of the top electric planes currently on the market.

Why should we switch to electric planes?

According to the International Air Transport Association, air transport accounts for two percent of man-made, global CO2 emissions. This may not sound like much, but it equals 859 million tonnes of CO2, which is only set to increase as the number of air passengers rises to an estimated 7.8 billion by 2036. For the future of aviation to be sustainable, this needs to change.

Although airlines are making progress in increasing efficiency and offsetting emissions, what the industry really needs is a switch from carbon-based fuels like gasoline to cleaner, renewable energy sources. In 2016, the pioneering Solar Impulse plane travelled 24,855 miles around the world powered entirely by solar energy. However, it held just two pilots and isn’t viable for commercial flight.

So could electric planes be the answer? Here’s a look at the advantages of electric aviation:

  • Efficiency ‒ Electric aircraft could be up to 10% more efficient than traditional planes and entirely emission-free.
  • Noise reduction ‒ Electric planes are far quieter than traditional aircraft, so have the potential to operate near residential and business areas.
  • Flexibility ‒ Electric aircraft can take off and land on relatively short runways or even vertically. This means they can be used in more diverse areas, including cities, where ground-based transport is congested.
  • Good for remote areas ‒ Rather than put in expensive infrastructure like roads and railway tracks, electric planes could easily connect remote areas.

Is electric aviation possible?

The Airbus e-Genius electric craft on the tarmac
The Airbus e-Genius electric craft on the tarmac

The first flight in an electric plane took place in 1973 and was logged in the Guinness Book of World Records. Aircraft manufacturer Heino Brditschka used a new nickel-cadmium battery that enabled him to fly the plane 300 metres above the ground for up to 15 minutes. So, following this success, why didn't electric planes take off in the same way that the electric car industry has? It all comes down to batteries.

Electric batteries store about 40 times less energy per unit of weight than normal jet fuel, which means they're not powerful enough to operate commercial jets. Although battery densities are increasing every year, many people believe we need new battery chemistries to make electric planes viable. Ultimately, the future of electric aviation depends on whether the industry can create better batteries that have a higher energy density.

Electric planes on the market

As demand for more sustainable air travel increases, the race is on to create viable electric planes for the commercial market. Here's a look at some of the latest models in development:

Wright Electric ‒ This US start-up company's goal is to make every short-haul flight zero-emission within 20 years. Its all-electric powered airliner can fly up to 335 miles, covering short-haul routes like London to Paris or New York to Boston, and is able to carry up to 186 passengers. Wright Electric recently partnered with EasyJet, calculating that its electric planes can cover a fifth of EasyJet's current flight routes.

Alice Commuter ‒ Israeli start-up Eviation is working on an electric plane that can carry nine passengers up to 650 miles and has a cruising speed of 240 knots. The Alice Commuter uses cutting-edge airframe design and battery technology to achieve a quiet, emission-free plane, using the latest lithium-ion batteries which surpass the 400Wh/kg mark and take up 65% of the aircraft's weight. The Alice Commuter is set to come to market in 2021 and could be ideal for private jet charters.

Alpha Electro II ‒ Intended for flight training, this two-seater electric aircraft is powered by a special lithium-polymer battery which has an energy density of around 175Wh/kg. Earlier this year, Norway's transport minister and CEO of airport operator Avinor tested the Alpha Electro II at Oslo airport. Following Norway's impressive success with electric cars, which accounted for over half of new cars sold in the country 2017, the country aims to run all short-haul flights with electric planes by 2040.

E-Genius ‒ This fully electric powered aeroplane was developed at the University of Stuttgart. The e-Genius can fly 250 miles carrying two crew members, with a take-off mass of 900kg. In 2016, the plane flew 300 miles nonstop over the Alps, reaching 142 miles per hour. It burns no fuel and emits zero carbon, using an all-electric motor powered by a single battery which uses a fifth of the energy of a typical fuel-powered two-seater plane.

E-Fan X ‒ Airbus has teamed up with Siemens and Rolls-Royce to create its new electric plane range. The companies have been researching electric flight by adapting commuter aircrafts with battery-powered engines, as well as testing whether electricity can be generated safely in flight. The prototype E-Fan completed a crossing over the English Channel in 2015, powered solely by electricity.

The latest version of the two-seater plane, named the E-Fan X, aims to take flight in 2020 and could be used for short-haul commercial flights. One of the plane's engines has been replaced with an electric motor and fan and uses a gas turbine to power an electric generator, making it more of a hybrid-electric plane. When the E-Fan X comes to market, it could mark a new era in electric aviation.

The Airbus e-Genius electric craft on the tarmac
The Airbus e-Genius electric craft on the tarmac

Vahana and CityAirbus ‒ Airbus has also created these two models, which it believes will revolutionise the future of city travel. The Vahana is an unmanned electrical aircraft that can land and take-off vertically, carrying passengers and cargo within a city. The plane is designed to navigate an urban environment and completed a successful test flight in February 2018. The CityAirbus is also self-piloted, with vertical take-off capabilities ideal for use in cities. The plane can carry four people, is incredibly quiet and creates zero emissions. The CityAirbus will be tested in 2018.

Zunum Aero ‒ Boeing has collaborated with JetBlue Technology Ventures to create a hybrid-electric aircraft that can carry 12 passengers, with a range of 700 miles. Although it's currently a hybrid, the Zunum Aero has been designed to transition to full electrical power once a more powerful battery has been developed. The manufacturers intend the plane to make use of thousands of underused airfields across the country so passengers can avoid busy hubs and get closer to their final destination.

NASA X-57 Maxwell ‒ This experimental electric plane uses 14 electrical motors which have been integrated into a wing. Two large motors at the tips of the wing reduce drag, achieving a 500% increase in efficiency when flying at high speeds. The NASA X-57 Maxwell had its first test flight in 2017 and is set to fly properly in 2018.

Pipistrel Alpha Electro ‒ This Slovenian plane uses a 60-kilowatt electric engine developed by Siemens. The Alpha Electro can stay airborne for an hour and recharges like a mobile phone. Now in production, the plane costs $129,800, needs less runway space and climbs faster than a fuel-powered equivalent model. Pipistrel is even talking with Uber about the possibility of using the craft in cities, given its vertical take-off and landing capabilities.

The future of aviation may very well be in electric and sustainable aircraft, but who’s to say what technologies could emerge in the coming years to change that? Whatever tomorrow brings, you can rest assured that ACS will continue to offer the cutting edge in luxury, convenient air charters. Find out more about our bespoke private air charter services here.

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