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Flying In Electric Planes, A Possible Future!

by Vrinda Jain
Flying In Electric Planes, A Possible Future!

January 29, 2021

Today's events make tomorrow's history. And history was indeed made when the red and white- electric aeroplane took off for its first flight.

The customised electric aircraft – Cessna Caravan 208B – with a maximum of nine passengers is a revolutionary outcome of scientific prowess. The test aircraft only has a seat installed for the pilot, and it’s still a long way from the 200-300-seater jet that takes you on the weekend to your weekend getaways or trips.

But regardless of that, the e-flight test was a success. It is built on past experiments with small planes. The two companies behind it, AeroTEC and magniX, which supplied the electric motor are delighted with the results.

Roei Ganzarski, Chief Executive Officer of magniX, said in a statement that the price of flying the Cessna was only $6. And if they had used the conventional engine, it would have cost them $300-400.

But with this, what is the possible future of electric planes?

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There have been some attempts to change the aircraft design paradigm. The 1970s promised a future of supersonic travel that never really took hold, besides the limited experiences of the Concorde (pictured) and its Soviet equivalent, the Tu-144.

The Need Of Electric Planes

Electric flying modules have been around since the 1970s. Still, it has been limited to small experimental aircraft travelling short distances and solar-powered aircraft with massive wingspans unable to carry people. However, as the danger due to climate crisis is deepening, there’s a growing interest in developing electric passenger aircraft as a means of reducing pollution and operating costs for airlines.

Roughly 150 electrical aircraft programmes are currently underway worldwide. These projects have shown growth by 50% since April 2018. Many proposals are innovative concepts aimed at creating urban air taxis, private aircraft or parcel delivery aircraft.

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NASA's X-57 prototype: Smaller electric motors will enable distributed propulsion like the one found in NASA's X-57 prototype and lower noise levels and operational costs will make it possible for electrical-powered aircraft to fly much closer to where people live and work.

While the aviation industry currently accounts for only 3% of global CO2 emissions, by 2050, passenger airliners can emit up to 24% of global emissions due to the sector’s projected development.

Flying a 180 seater by 2030 may seem ambitious, but the view will get more apparent as we are more likely to see a hybrid-electric aircraft roll out. In these aircraft, the propulsion of batteries and electric motors is given alongside conventional combustion systems.

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Eviation Aircraft also focuses on the short-range regional market. This Israeli startup has come up with a sleek nine-passenger, self-piloted, all-electric aircraft to operate primarily in the 100 to 600 mile range (although the aircraft will have a longer maximum range).

The Long Haul Dream Of Electric Planes

Firstly, the long-haul flights by electric aeroplanes will not be possible anytime soon. Certainly not in the next 50 years. The reason is energy density. Energy density is usually defined in several watt-hours (Wh) you get per kilogramme (kg). A current lithium-ion battery’s energy density might attain 250 Wh per kg, while the energy density of jet fuel, or kerosene, is somewhat 12,000 Wh per kg.

Even so, the difference is not as big as it seems, since electrical propulsion systems can be built to be more effective- which means that they can travel more miles with less energy. But this still leaves fossil fuel systems around 14 times more energy-rich than battery-powered substitutes.

Batteries are slow and, are often massive in terms of their form and their bulk. Plus, another problem is that the battery’s weight remains the same even though it’s dead. As a typical aircraft flies, kerosene is used up, making the aircraft much lighter. That, in turn, reduces the amount of fuel required to remain in the air.

Duncan Walker at Loughborough University is one of those who measured what this means to bring electrical aircraft into the air. He found out that the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380, can only fly 1,000km with batteries compared to its usual 15,000km range. These limiting factors have led the industry analysts to believe that unique aircraft types will be electrified first.

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Electric flight was first tested in the 1800s and the innovations kept coming through the second half of the 20th century. Ampaire plans to retrofit a six-passenger plane, called TailWind. This rendering shows the plane high above the clouds.

The Dream Projects

Technicians are currently trying to build a 180-seat fully electric jet that can run for about 500km. The budget airline EasyJet has partnered with the aeronautical start-up Wright Electric to develop and construct a concept aircraft that, if successful, could enter commercial service as early as 2030.

Its travel routes will be restricted from Paris to London; It will fly short-haul routes of 1,500 km or less. Gradually introducing electrical aircraft that could replace the conventional aircraft on these short-haul trips and the environmental impact of aviation could be improved.

One of the closely watched hybrid aircraft research projects of recent years has been the E-Fan X, a collaborative effort between Airbus, Siemens and Rolls-Royce. The aircraft concept featured a 100-seat BAE 146 aircraft to be customised so one of its four engines would be powered by a 2-megawatt engine which is enough energy to power approximately 2,000 homes. The company planned to test drive the flight in 2020, but that came to a halt.

According to Rolls Royce, Chief project engineer the technology for E-Fan X was not shelved entirely. The wide variety of projects and experiments in electrical aircraft remains promising. This means that there are more opportunities for one of these aircraft to succeed.

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Self flying plane and car 3D render

Other Technologies

Two other technologies to minimise aircraft emissions are biofuels and hydrogen propulsion systems. Each of them has issues of its own. Biofuels made of organic matter could be used by current aircraft and could be greener than kerosene. However, the demand for biofuel is still limited, and many biofuels have environmental disadvantages.

Though theoretically clean from renewable sources, Hydrogen suffers from some of the same problems as electric batteries. We need more than three times the amount to store Hydrogen for an aircraft than for kerosene. In other terms, all three of these promising innovations – batteries, biofuels and Hydrogen, but they need some significant breakthroughs before they can revolutionise aviation.

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