Plug and Fly: Greener, Cleaner Skies Ahead
Harnessing electric powered aircraft may seem like a recent technological initiative – surprisingly, electric powered flight goes back to the 1880s when a couple of French army officers named Renard and Krebs flew a hydrogen-filled dirigible powered by an 8-horsepower electric motor. Their flight accomplished something no airship had done before – a return to its original launch site at the end of its flight.
Back to the future, there have been some remarkable feats by solar powered and electric powered aircraft. In 2015, an aircraft called the Solar Impulse circumvented the globe using only solar power generated by photovoltaic solar cells impregnated in its wings.
Similarly, aerial crossings of the English Channel made news when Hugues Duval’s Cr-Cri and Airbus’ E-Fan completed the trip using a lithium battery powered electric engine. Being the first to complete the feat, Airbus collected a $1500 prize offered by The Daily Mail Newspaper – a paltry sum compared to the millions Airbus sunk into creating the E-Fan.
These accomplishments and others point to an aviation future that could usher in a greener, quieter and cleaner way to travel aloft.
So What And Who Cares?
The practical among us are likely to dismiss these feats as mere novelties. The futurists among us, however, are hopeful these small victories point to a new golden age in aviation.
Here are some of the benefits of electric powered aircraft:
- Little to no carbon footprint
- Lower operating costs
- Less noise pollution
- Quiet in-cabin, little in-flight noise
- Smoother engine operation with less vibration
- Engine rotation speeds at 2500 RPM requiring no reduction gears
Today’s guru of electric transportation, Elon Musk envisions a future of personal electric aircraft that eventually will supplant the automobile as the preferred method of personal travel.
The World’s First Fully Electric Commercial Aircraft
Recently the world’s first fully electric powered commercial aircraft completed a successful maiden flight. Canadian airline, Harbour Air, plans to convert all of its 40 seaplanes that fly between the city of Vancouver to nearby ski resorts, island resorts and coastal communities, to electric power.
This technology would mean significant fuel cost savings for the airline and zero emissions. In addition to fuel efficiency, the company would save millions in maintenance costs because electric motors require much less upkeep than piston or jet engines.
Is Elon Musk’s Vision Even Possible?
Boeing and Airbus certainly think so.
Boeing began working in 2014 with the University of Cambridge to develop a hybrid propulsion system that works much like an electric car. The fossil-fuel side of the engine gets you into the air; the electric side keeps you cruising along until you have to come down to earth again.
Similarly, Airbus did not just cross the English Channel to win the $1,500 prize; they crossed it because they are working towards an electric driven airliner by 2050.
The barriers inhibiting solar or electric powered aircraft in the past have been insufficient power, battery weight and limited range.
The biggest obstacle has been battery technology – past batteries were too heavy and did not store enough energy capacity. However, with the advent of improved lithium-polymer batteries, they are now starting to become a viable power source.
Siemens Electric (purchased by Rolls Royce in 2019) made a significant breakthrough in electric powered aircraft. They have developed an electric engine that weighs just over 100 pounds, but delivers the power output of a 350 horsepower gasoline-fueled piston aircraft engine.
As technology advances, these barriers are being breached. It is now possible to develop a two-seat training aircraft like the Pipistrel Alpha Electro, which received FAA certification. Soon, the next flight across the English Channel could take place in a much larger and heavier aircraft. Of course, if you will not be satisfied until you are able to cross the country or the Atlantic in a hybrid electric plane, just be patient. NASA, Boeing and Airbus are quickly working on the next generation of electric engines and power sources to provide the traveling public a cheaper, greener way to get to any place in the world.
The Final Word: Necessity
They say there are no problems, only opportunities. Aviation is one arena where barriers are always being broken. Twentieth Century aviation proved it time and time again. From the time the Wright Flyer first flew, to the first DC-3 was a span of less than three decades, and from the DC-3 to the supersonic Concorde was less than four. Just as the piston engine gave way to jet propulsion, the polluting fossil-fuel engines of today will eventually be replaced by the greener, cleaner and more efficient electric powered aircraft of tomorrow. Why? Because we absolutely need to make it happen.
How Green Are Electric Aircraft (or Cars)
Most people do not realize that electric vehicles still emit substantial amounts of CO2, offsetting the supposed reduction of emissions. The CO2 may not be coming directly from the exhaust pipe, but these batteries need to be charged by electricity generated from coal- and gas-fired power plants. In addition, it takes an enormous amount of energy to produce lithium batteries, which are mostly manufactured in China, which has world’s largest number of coal- and gas-fired power plants.