Energy, News, Technology, Travel

How Far Is the Electric Era of Aviation?

Abhinav Raj

Abhinav Raj, Writer

Quieter airports, zero-emission flights and significantly lower airfares are things a future with electric planes will bring – when it’s here

Five years ago, pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg set out on an expedition to traverse around the globe in the Solar Impulse 2 – a zero-emission, solar-powered aircraft that burned not a drop of fuel to soar the skies.

On the 26th of July, 2016, the Solar Impulse 2 touched down at Abu Dhabi airport after circumnavigating the globe in 505 days over a distance of 40,000 kilometres, becoming the first-ever round-the-world solar flight; demonstrating how clean energy can achieve feats hitherto perceived impossible. 

Consistent sensitisation efforts by environmentalists and climate change activists have caused an awakening of environmental conscientiousness in the masses. As people and governmental bodies grow cognisant of their carbon footprint, they awaken to the detriment air travel poses to the environment. The aviation industry alone contributed 915 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019. To put that into perspective, the UK’s net emission of carbon dioxide in 2018 was estimated to be 364.1 million tonnes. 

In a paradigm like the current, a switch to electric airliners is more than likely to be a welcome one. 

Clearly, in pursuit of electric planes, there’s will – but where’s the way?

‘Watt’ Is the Answer to Zero-Emission

©Airbus SE

Major aerospace companies have taken note of the grave sustainability issue in air transport and devised innovative solutions for the new age of aviation. 

Electrification of the modern aircraft has been ruminated in concept for quite some time in the aviation industry, and aerospace giant Boeing has promising development on that front. 

Boeing (in partnership with NASA) in its endeavour to make aircraft more environmentally friendly initiated Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research (SUGAR) in December 2006 and has offered multiple concepts of environmentally progressive aircraft for the future of aviation. 

The Boeing SUGAR Volt is a twin-engine, fixed-wing, hybrid-electric aircraft concept that will burn fuel in its engine cores only when intense thrust is required; such as during take-offs or steep altitude climb. For the rest of the journey, the power to the turbofan engines will be supplemented or replaced by electricity, reducing emission to a remarkable extent, or zeroing it completely. 

The objective of the SUGAR Volt project is to alleviate the environmental impact of flying by reducing the amount of fuel burn by approximately 70%, and Boeing is aiming to get their hybrid aircraft in the air between 2030 and 2050. 

With a similar decarbonisation initiative, European aerospace company Airbus SE launched the E-Fan X demonstrator in 2017, to test the possibilities and limitations of a hybrid-electric propulsion system in an aircraft. 

The Airbus E-Fan X is a usual turbofan jet with an unusual twist – one of the aircraft’s four turbofan engines is replaced by a 2-megawatt electric motor, powered by a high-power battery pack supplying 3000 Volt of direct current.

The European Commission’s Flightpath 2050 Vision for Aviation seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 75%, nitric oxide emission by 90% and noise by 65% – the E-Fan X seems to be a giant leap towards achieving those targets. 

Despite the advancements, electric planes haven’t quite taken off yet.

Holding Short of the Runway

While many experts predict that electric planes could enter the airspace in the next 20 years, there are several impediments on the path before we could be on board a zero-emission flight with a clear conscience. 

Even though lithium-ion batteries have the highest specific energy of all commercially available batteries, it’s not nearly enough to get an airliner off the ground. Modern Li-ion batteries have a specific energy of about 265 watt-hours per kilogram, which is measly when compared to the specific energy of jet fuel, which is an unparalleled 12,000 watt-hours per kilogram. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg of the engineering problem. 

To provide more power to an electric plane, one needs a heavier battery. But then, to offset the heavier weight, one needs more power to get the plane airborne. It’s a paradox. 

The next big problem is regulation and certification. In the United States, the firms must get certified from the Federal Aviation Administration and prove their aircraft’s reliability by passing a series of tests and demonstrations. The FAA regulations have hindered the development of electric aircraft for years. 

A future with zero-emission airplanes may look far, but that only means it’s in our sight. If anything, electric airplanes are holding short, only to take off soon. 

As Greta Thunberg would say “The moment we decide to fulfil something, we can do anything.”

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