The aviation industry is trying to deal with a new phenomenon: flygskam, or “flying shame,” where environmentally-conscious travelers avoid planes in their travels.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) estimates that air transport is responsible for two per cent of global CO2 emissions—though the industry has committed to improving fuel efficiency by 1.5 per cent every year, with a long-term goal of a 50 per cent reduction by 2050. However, passenger demand is also expected to double over the next 20 years, putting more pressure on the environment.
But engineers, investors and scientists are racing to perfect a solution: the electric plane.
An electric plane would use far less fuel than a conventional one, dramatically cutting emissions (perhaps eliminating them entirely). Also, electric aircraft would be much simpler than fuel-burning counterparts, requiring less moving parts that could malfunction.
The biggest obstacles to overcome are battery power and regulation.
An aircraft needs to store onboard all the energy needed to move its mass for each flight. And for aircraft, mass is crucial—this is why you have to weigh your luggage before boarding.
The problem with batteries is that they are currently just too heavy. Their power output is too small to justify their weight on the plane. A plane flies when its lift equals or exceeds the weight of the plane; the more batteries you need, the more the plane will weigh, the more lift is needed—and the more batteries are needed to power the engines. Current lithium-ion batteries only have about two per cent the energy density of liquid jet fuel, making them way too inefficient… for now.
Another problem: current aircraft take off heavy but burn fuel in flight and land much lighter. Battery-powered aircraft would take off heavy and land heavy—meaning additional pressure on the plane’s structure and potential for damage.
But there are promising signs. Battery technology has improved and shows potential to keep getting better.
Hybrid technologies are becoming an important workaround while engineers work on perfecting a flight-friendly battery. This technology switches between conventional fuels and batteries. In an aircraft, electric engines could power for the short but energy-hungry takeoffs and landings, which would save significant amounts of fuel. When the aircraft reaches cruising altitude, it would switch over to its conventional engines which are more efficient during that phase of the flight—and would also recharge the depleted energy cells.
Currently there are a variety of start-ups working on creating a working electric plane.
Eviation, an Israeli company, unveiled its Alice nine-seat zero-emission electric aircraft at the Paris Auto Show earlier this year. The Alice can fly 650 miles at 10,000 feet with a cruising speed of 276 miles per hour—and is aimed at the regional aviation market.
Eviation’s CEO has jokingly described Alice as a “huge battery with some plane painted on it.” The Alice weighs around 14,000 pounds—over half of it made up of the 900-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery battery that weighs 8,200 pounds. Alice is scheduled for a test flight by the end of 2019, and Eviation is aiming for FAA certification by late 2021. And the company already has a contract with Cape Air, the largest independent regional carrier in the U.S. for an undisclosed number of planes, which cost $4 million each.
Pipistrel’s Alpha Electro is the first electric plane to attain FAA certification. It’s powered by a 220-pound 21-kWh battery that gives the plane about an hour flying time, with 20 minutes reserve. Pipistrel has built about 40 aircraft for customers to date.
NASA is also researching electric aircraft with its X-57 aircraft, a testbed for electric propulsion systems. The X-57 is a modified twin-engine Tecnam P2006T manufactured by Empirical Systems Aerospace. NASA’s project is particularly promising because it’s not just testing the propulsion system itself—it’s also studying how an electric motor influences the aerodynamics of the aircraft as a whole, which could lead to innovative new designs.
And even Airbus is getting in on the game: the planemaker intends to introduce a hybrid version of the A320 passenger jet by 2035.
Right now the most promise is in short-hop or regional flights, where a plane can fly a shorter distance on one battery charge. Another growing sector is the urban air mobility market—“flying taxis.” We’ll have to wait for a while for the bigger aircraft, though—likely not earlier than 2050.
“There are prototypes flying today that will probably be some experimental flights in cities and in short-range flights next year,” said Graham Warwick, executive editor of Aviation Week. “And people are talking about sort of commercial service…maybe as early as 2023. But certainly by 2025, you will see some level of commercial service with these aircrafts.”
Regulators like the FAA and European Union are already working on regulations to set the bar for a safe electric plane—but creating rules for technologies still in development can be a tricky undertaking. Many of the rules are structured around conventional aircraft, and an entirely new set of rules will be needed to address battery-powered aircraft. These rules will have to define safety protocols and standards to govern components like the batteries and propulsion systems and will have to define other factors such as how much reserve charge an electric plane must have in case of an emergency.
“Zero-emission airplanes are the future of flying,” said futurist and author Blake Morgan of CMO Network. “As carbon emissions continue to grow from air travel and more customers are concerned amount their impact on the environment, the need for electric planes will only intensify. The future could be in the sky before we know it.”
Read more about the latest in battery-powered aircraft at NASA Receives First All-Electric Aircraft, Readies It for Flight.