This year has been a great year for the introductory to new technological advances. Now a new bullet point is being added to the list – electrical aviation.
The Solar Impulse 2 took flight in 2016. The adventure began by setting off in Abu Dhabi, and landed back 16 months later. Unlike other planes who have taken month journeys in the past, the Solar Impulse 2 made their journey with no emissions, and burning zero fuel. It was instead powered by the use of solar panels, an electric motor, and four 41 kWh lithium-ion batteries. Since its trip, electrically powered airplanes have become something of a reality, versus something that one would day dream about while looking at the sky. A future in electronic aviation looks promising. This would cut the use of fuel, like used by planes today. It would also aid our environment by reducing emission levels. Who doesn’t love cleaner air?
The European Commision states that airplane emissions account for about 3% of total EU greenhouse gas, and around 4% of world greenhouse gas emissions. It seems small, but the percentage is significantly damaging and only growing. Tech Crunch compares “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”. Electric aviation could possibly be the answer to reducing these problematic emissions levels. It could give way to reducing greenhouse emissions to 40% below the 1990 levels, just by the year 2030.
There are also great plus’s for passengers! Electric aircrafts result in cheaper tickets than a regular flight, decreased noise for more comfort, and a higher rate of climb. Electric engines allow planes to maintain their performance at higher altitudes unlike other planes that we use today. Therefore, engines can be less powerful and still generate equivalent speed.
Of course, there are still many things that need to be done before electric flights can go commercial. The Burt-Rutan Long-EZ traveled 202.6 mph in 2012, carrying a single passenger. The Boeing 787 flies at 585 mph with more than 242 passengers. So, there is still a very long way to go. Tech Crunch says, “at the current pace of battery and electrical engine technology, it won’t be until 2030 that even hybrid electric technology is used in commercial aviation”. But that just means we have something long term to look forward to.
Another challenge is creating a usable cooling system. A system rejecting anywhere from 50 to 800 kW of heat is needed in flight. A cooling system is also needed for the integrated power module, which is used for high-power electronics. Materials for improved thermal performance still need to be developed, as well as a lightweight system for cooling.
Another posing problem is the need for batteries. Batteries right now do not provide the necessary power-to-weight ratio for electric aviation. Of course, this is not an overnight solution.
Several electronic aviation companies are in competition, including types like: Zunum Aero, Airbus E-Fan X, Eviation Alice, Wright Electric, Ampaire, and Joby Aviation.
With the widespread of electric cars filling our streets, we can soon have skies filled with environmentally friendly electronic planes. We are taking small steps into the future, but steps nonetheless. Or – should we say flights? Once the issues of specific engine design, and powerful batteries become a thing of the past, so will jet fueled airplanes.