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Saving the Environment: The Prospect of Electric Aircraft

12-May-2017
12-May-2017 17:10
in Aviation and Travel
by Jerome Wilcox

The electric car, once only the domain of eccentric Sci-Fi movies, has now well and truly found its way into everyday consumer life. So, what’s next for the world of fuel innovation? Will we really be able to power commercial flights using just electric fuel, as we now can cars?

A start-up company formed just last year believes we will. The goal of Wright Electric is to make every short-haul commercial flight electric-powered in the next twenty years. Perhaps even more ambitious is their hope to offer a commercial flight between London and Paris in the next ten years.

The company’s proposed low-emission electric plane would actually cost less to run than those currently operating on jet fuels, resulting in a lower cost of travel for both airlines and consumers. The planes would have modular battery packs that could be charged independently of the plane, allowing for a quick swap-over on the tarmac whenever a plane needs ‘refuelling’. This would use the same cargo container that is already in a regular plane. The company is currently seeking investors to help them build a 150-seat passenger aircraft capable of flying 300 miles, which would compete with the smaller members of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families. That means that, by 2030, your trip across the continent could be entirely electric-fueled.

The only problem is that the battery technology that the company is relying on doesn’t actually exist - yet. Wright Electric is relying on battery innovation to continue at its present rate for the next ten years in order for the company to keep a plane in the sky on electricity alone for an entire flight. Batteries need to shrink in both weight and volume, to about 25 tons per battery, in order to make their plans take off. If this doesn’t happen, then Wright Electric would be forced to switch to a hybrid of regular aviation fuel and electricity to power their planes.

Despite this, the project seems to have enough promise in it that major carrier EasyJet has gotten involved. The budget airline has entered into discussions with Wright Electric to share their commercial know-how with the start-up and increase their chances of success. Although Wright Electric hasn’t yet produced a plane of its own, they’re also working alongside American inventor Chip Yates, who has created his own small electric aircraft, the Long-ESA.

But even if Wright Electric is unable to complete the feat, they’re certainly not short of competitors. Aviation giant Airbus is also developing its own electric models. The first of these, a two-seater plane, the E-Fan, has been under development since 2014. In 2015, Airbus completed its first successful electric flight across the English Channel in this model, piloted by Didier Esteyne, who called the flight “confirmation that we can proceed with the development of these aircraft”. And, despite starting small, the company have also announced plans to create their own short-haul electric aeroplane seating 70 to 90 passengers in the future.

This means that it shouldn’t be too long before Airbus is producing larger, commercial-sized jets, powered by electricity alone.
What is needed to push these innovations further is competition, which seems to be well and truly present – so perhaps the reality of Sci-Fi electric planes isn’t too far off the horizon now.

 

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