The next generation of airplane technology is upon us.
With the aviation industry being one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s striving to reduce its carbon footprint.
And new technology is driving change. In this case, we’re talking about all-electric planes.
There are several inventors and companies in various countries working on the concept. But the most prominent name is Airbus Group (EADSY). It’s investing $22 million into a project that will develop electric planes.
Here’s a look at the “Tesla of the skies…”
Airbus Goes Back to the Future
The E-Fan is 22 feet long, has a 31-foot wingspan, weighs 1,100 pounds when empty, and has a cruising speed of 100 mph.
But, most importantly, the two-seater electric plane emits zero emissions.
It operates entirely on lithium-ion batteries, which power its two 30-kilowatt electric motors. During acceleration and taxiing, a six-kilowatt electric motor in the main wheel provides extra power. This reduces electrical power consumption while on the ground.
And E-Fan doesn’t just boast less environmental pollution. Since taking its first flight in March 2014, Airbus has shown off the E-Fan at various airshows across Europe, with spectators noting a big advantage when it comes to noise pollution. The plane is virtually silent.
On July 10, Airbus made headlines when the E-Fan successfully crossed the English Channel. The flight path mirrored that of Louis Blériot in 1909, the first aviator to cross the Channel.
Here’s a look at the plane…
This design is just the beginning, too…
The Future of Aviation – Batteries and Biofuel
As Airbus points out, the Channel crossing was made possible thanks to very recent technological advances.
For example, electric storage capacity – essential to keep the motors running – has jumped by 60%, as the lithium-ion batteries have become more efficient.
In turn, this has increased the time the plane can stay in the sky – from 25 minutes to over 55 minutes.
Over the long term, Airbus sees its electric technology combining with biofuel-powered motors in a hybrid plane. After the batteries have drained, these motors would re-charge the power cells.
The company’s aim is for this plane to carry up to 100 passengers on regional flights within 15 years. It also added that by the middle of the century, such a plane should have a range of at least three hours.
In the shorter term, however, Airbus plans to launch its E-Fan 2.0 in 2017, and have a four-seater electric plane with a gas-powered range extender ready by 2019.
But with such technological progress being made, and a mandate to reduce aviation greenhouse emissions while still maintaining power and range, Airbus obviously isn’t alone in trying to develop electric plane technology…
Other Competitors on the Horizon
As you can imagine, all the big names are involved…
- In partnership with Cambridge University, Boeing (BA) is working on an electric plane. Last year, its single-seater aircraft took a test flight with an electric motor that’s augmented with a piston engine.
- NASA is working on a $15-million project to produce its own version of an electric plane, dubbed the X-57.
- Last year, the Solar Impulse crossed the United States without using a drop of fuel. And Solar Impulse 2 recently made the longest-ever solar-powered flight, going non-stop from Japan to Hawaii. (Unfortunately, the aircraft suffered battery damage and is grounded until April 2016, with the team needing another $22 million to restart its round-the-world mission.)
- And Airbus was beaten across the English Channel by about 12 hours by a French pilot in a Cri-Cri electric plane.
The question is, with all this innovation, will electric plane technology actually succeed?
The answer most likely is “yes.”
The technology starts with inherent advantages. Electric motors may weigh the same as turbine engines, but are 2.5 times more efficient at converting stored energy into mechanical power. And they’re up to six times more efficient than conventional piston engines.
Needless to say, there’s a very long way to go before a viable electric plane becomes a commercial reality. But the aviation industry’s biggest names wouldn’t be working on the concept if they didn’t think it was realistic.
With electric plane technology specifically, though, the bottom line is that it will advance as fast as Elon Musk and others can push forward new battery technologies. This is happening as we speak – and at the current rate of progress, there’s a good chance that our future will feature all-electric planes that are as commonplace as conventional jet engine-fueled planes are today.