The electric aircraft may be supplied by a variety of methods including batteries, ground power cables, solar cells, ultra-capacitors, fuel cells, and power beaming. The idea of electrically powered aircraft dates way back to 1883 when the French scientist flew the first ever electrically-powered airship. Almost 150 years later, only today we are optimistic that we will soon develop the technology necessary to make this happen.
But what does it mean for the world around us? And why is it exactly that these topics are of so much interest?
According to the European Commission, airplane emissions currently account for about 3 percent of total EU greenhouse gas emissions, and about 4 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a pretty significant percentage that’s growing at a fast rate. By comparison, the emissions per person on a flight from London to New York is roughly equivalent to a person in the EU heating their home for a whole year. With electric aviation, these rising emissions could be reduced, and shifting to electric engines is seen as one way to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the aviation sector. That’s where electric aircraft present a ray of hope!
And there is more to the sustainability conversation than just carbon emissions. Jet planes also emit water vapor emissions that turn into long plumes of exhaust — these are called contrails, and they worsen climate change by trapping heat inside the atmosphere. This is a great way in which electric planes are beneficial.
Some governments like British Columbia even stimulate efforts in progress to bring urban air mobility by enacting tax exemption for electric aircraft. An incentive created by the government as part of its ‘CleanBC’ initiative to lower emissions
From the passenger’s perspective, electric aircraft is a massive win. The new planes would result in a cheaper ticket, decreased noise and a higher rate of climb. With an electric engine, planes are able to maintain performance at higher altitudes where the air resistance is less, unlike combustion engines that operate less efficiently at these altitudes.
World’s first’ fully-electric commercial flight
An all-electric powered seaplane has taken flight in Vancouver, Canada, in what the operators describe as a “world first” for the aviation industry. The short test flight by Harbour Air and magniX involved a six-passenger aircraft fitted with an electric motor. The companies said it was a first step to building the “world’s first all-electric commercial fleet”.
“It was the first shot of the electric aviation revolution,” says Roei Ganzarski, chief executive of magniX, which worked with Canadian airline Harbour Air Seaplanes to convert one of the aircraft in their fleet of seaplanes so it could run on battery power rather than fossil fuels.
For Greg McDougall, founder of Harbour Air and pilot during the test flight, it marked the culmination of years of trying to put the environment at the forefront of its operations.
Harbour Air, which has a fleet of some 40 commuter floatplanes serving the coastal regions around Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle, was the first airline in North America to become carbon-neutral through offsets in 2007. A one-acre green roof on their new Victoria airline terminal followed.
Then in 2017, 50 solar panels and four beehives housing 10,000 honeybees were added, but for McDougall, a Tesla owner with an interest in disruptive technology, the big goal was to electrify the fleet.
McDougall searched for alternative motor options for a couple of years and had put the plan on the backburner when Ganzarski first approached him in February 2019.
“He said, ‘We’ve got a motor we want to get certified and we want to fly it before the end of the year,’” McDougall recalls.
The two companies found their environmental values and teams were a good match and quickly formed a partnership. Eleven months later, the modest Canadian airline got what McDougall refers to as their “e-plane” off the ground, pulling ahead of other electric flight projects, including those by big-name companies Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce.
The project came together in record time considering how risk-averse the aviation industry is, says McDougall. “Someone had to take the lead,” he says. “The reason I live in British Columbia is because of the outdoors: protecting it is in our DNA. When it came to getting the benefits from an electric flight it made sense for us to step in and pioneer the next step.” (- source BBC https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200211-the-electric-plane-leading-a-revolution)
SAS and Airbus partnership
Airbus has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with SAS Scandinavian Airlines for hybrid and electric aircraft eco-system and infrastructure requirements research. The first electric aircraft is planned for 2030.
Under the MoU, Airbus and SAS Scandinavian Airlines will cooperate on a joint research project to enhance understanding of the operational and infrastructure opportunities and challenges involved with the large-scale introduction of hybrid and full electric aircraft to airlines modus operandi.
The collaboration also includes a plan to involve a renewable energy supplier to ensure genuine zero CO2 emissions operations are assessed. This multidisciplinary approach — from energy to infrastructure — aims to address the entire aircraft operations ecosystem in order to better support the aviation industry’s transition to sustainable energy.
The Global Aviation Industry (ATAG) including Airbus and SAS Scandinavian Airlines, has committed to achieving carbon-neutral growth for the aviation industry as a whole from 2020 onwards, cutting aviation net emissions by 50% by 2050 (compared to 2005).
How close are we?
While the potential benefits of electric airplanes seem compelling, it will be several years before electronic planes replace the use of traditional passenger planes, particularly for cros s-continental or international flights. The most common power for electric aircraft is the battery. Most of these batteries are lithium-based, usually mixed with various metals. The challenge is to create batteries large enough for hours of power that will still allow for flight.
Electric aircraft that can travel long distances remain a big challenge for the sector.
Electrical motors, generators, power distribution, and controls have advanced rapidly but battery technology has not. An aircraft like the one flown in Vancouver could only fly about 160km (100 miles) on lithium battery power, according to AFP.
“The flight range now is not where we’d love it to be, but it’s enough to start the revolution,” said magniX chief executive Roei Ganzarski.
From commuting in air taxis to making regional flights more affordable and long-haul flights more environmentally friendly, electric planes hold a lot of promise!
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