By: Ifaisal Alhumaid
Transportation is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. According to the World Resources Institute, transportation has a share of 24% of global emissions as of October 2019. Transportation has many forms, one of its forms is air transportation. Aircrafts contribute 12% of US transportation emissions and 2.4% globally. What if we can cut this huge percentage down? and how can we? What are the challenges?
The concept of electric Aircrafts isn’t new, in fact, there are already projects and huge investments in this industry. Electric aircrafts were tested in December 2019, when magniX and Harbour air announced the first successful electric aircraft flight. Both companies are huge industry players, one being North America’s biggest seaplane company and the other is revolutionizing electric powered aviation. Their aircraft took off and flew over Vancouver, British Columbia Canada for 15 minutes. This is the first firm step into a world full of electric airplanes. This aircraft has only limited space, with not much room to fit many passengers yet.
Meanwhile, Other big companies, like Airbus (one of the biggest aviation companies) have invested in this idea. Their first achievements towards fully electric airplanes go back to 2010 with their CriCri airplane. CriCri was a small electric four engine aerobatic aircraft. They also had other projects like eGenius, Vahana, and CityAirbus. E-genius was developed in the institute of aircraft design at the University of Stuttgart, Germany with Airbus funding the project. The project first flew in 2011, marking the second contribution of Airbus. Vahana then came later as Airbus’ single seater aircraft. This aircraft was designed to fly for short periods as it was small, it is the first project from Airbus to create an air taxi. The aircraft is remotely piloted. Since the air taxi will not have a runway to take off, it was designed to take off vertically. The aircraft had its first successful flight test in 2018. In the third quarter of 2019, Airbus flew Vahana’s bigger sister, CityAirbus. As the name indicates, this aircraft is designed for air taxiing. This airplane has a multicopter configuration, with eight propellers attached to four ducted high-lift propulsion units. This aircraft is also remotely piloted, but it has more capacity for commuters. It has four seats compared to the Vahana single seat aircraft. The configuration of this aircraft makes it look like the already loved drone from Dji.
One of the more important projects that Airbus has is the E-Fan. The first E-Fan was shown in 2011.As the first electric aircraft demonstrator, this version of the aircraft was called E-Fan 1.0. Then in 2015, the bigger sibling of the aircraft, E-Fan 1.1, successfully flew across the English Channel. A year from 2021, now the biggest member of the E-Fan family is planned to be flown. This aircraft is called E-Fan X. The E-Fan X is co-developed with Rolls-Royce. The British company already has been manufacturing aircrafts engines since 1940 when the war has transformed it form automobiles manufacturer into aero propulsion. The E-Fan X is a hybrid aircraft, using a jet engine and an electric 2 MW (2700 hp) motor. To put this into perspective, a typical car in the USA is powered by a 120 Hp engine .
The biggest challenge that electrification of motors has is weight. Although the motor will not weigh much differently than the normal non-electric motor, the batteries feeding the motor are much heavier than regular jet fuel. For per unit of weight, jet fuel contains 14 times more useable energy. That means if we want to fully replace the drive system of an aircraft; the system will have to be 14 times heavier. The power to weight ratio is the biggest challenge in the electrification of airplanes. Until the battery industry develops and delivers lighter batteries, electric aircrafts will continue to struggle.
Also, one more challenge, batteries take up more space than regular jet fuel, which means it’s another challenge for airline companies. In order for them to have electric aircrafts, they will have to have seats in the airplane. It’s going to take some time, thankfully other forms of transportation are heading to a fully electric future, with Tesla leading the industry. So, the industry is in need for lighter and better batteries. The high demand will make the battery companies develop better batteries and more efficient batteries.
Edited for spelling, grammar, and clarity
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