The Rise of Electric Planes
If you were to tell the people in the 1700s that there would be flying buses that could transport up to 850 people, like the A380, they would probably burn you on a stake. Furthermore, the idea of having an electric plane might sound ludicrous at that time. But as they say, it’s impossible until somebody does it. While we haven’t achieved their expectation of aero-cabs and aero-cab stations (yet), the birth and development of electric planes are definitely a breakthrough in the aviation industry.
It all started in 1883 when brothers Gaston and Albert Tissandier fitted a 1.1 Kilowatt electric motor to an airship using bichromate batteries, and it was able to fly for an hour with the speed of 7 miles per hour. Other attempts followed after, like the electric RC plane of Fred Militki that used nicad batteries in 1960.
But why is there a need for us to make planes electric, too, just like how we did with cars and motorcycles? The answer is fairly obvious and simple; according to atag.org, flights worldwide produce a staggering 915 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019. With the globalization and steady increase of the population, it’s a must that we do what we can to decrease our CO2 emission. That includes the 2.5% CO2 contribution of the aviation industry. As per Rolls Royce, Jet A-1 for example has an efficiency rate of 26%. Comparing it to an electric-powered unit which is at 90%. The difference is absolutely worth trying. While we can trace back humanity’s first attempt in the electric plane back in the 1800s, it is both the better technology and the greater need for more sustainable energy that pushed us to put things into action and make it happen. Apart from making mother nature a little happier, here are the other notable and electrifying benefits of e-planes:
- Quieter airports. Taking DC-9 Aircraft as an example, it produces 90 decibels of noise at one nautical mile distance. This is enough to cause damages to the eardrums if exposed for around 8 hours (chem.purdue.edu). Electric aircraft, on the other hand, produces half of the noise during take-off and is barely audible inside once it’s past the cruising position. The only reason you might need to bring earplugs would be the snoring passenger beside you.
- Less maintenance. Electric planes do not use carburetors that get icy or fuel tanks that might have water in them, which translates to lesser time spent on inspection and maintenance. Professionals inspect commercial airplanes once every two days to make sure that the combustion engine will not combust or backfire. This is a time-consuming and costly process.
- No power loss. Turbo engines use the air from the atmosphere to mix it with fuel and burn. As the altitude rises, the air becomes thin therefore reducing the performance of the engine. This is not a problem for e-planes since they don’t rely on air to function. Therefore, optimum performance can be achieved throughout.
- Cheaper fares. With fewer expenses on fuel and maintenance, it is said that e-plane fares are 40-80% cheaper. Alice, the first all-electric passenger plane by Eviation, would cost you $200 per flight hour versus a turboprop that’s $1200 to $2000 per flight hour. That gives us one more reason to achieve those travel goals.
Sounds like a dream come true. With these benefits, you might be asking why we haven’t thrown away our kerosene-fueled planes yet and replaced everything with their electric counterparts. The answer is, aside from its cost, the greatest challenge that we have now is packing up enough energy density throughout the flight. It cannot be denied that fossil fuels can produce more energy per kilogram compared to the best lithium-ion batteries that we currently have. To give the actual figures, li-on batteries have a capacity of 1 Megajoule per kilogram versus Jet A-1 fuel with 43 Megajoules per kilogram. That’s more than a 40x difference. Maybe we can load them up with more batteries? Given that weight affects the range, endurance, take-off performance, and speed of an aircraft, the weight-to-energy ratio must be balanced.
NASA is already developing an experimental X-57 Maxwell that consists of 14 electric motors mounted on the wings’ leading edge. Boeing, with the help of NASA, has been working on the Sugar Volt hybrid electric concept since 2006 intended for 150-175 passengers. And as mentioned earlier, Eviation created Alice by distributing the batteries all over the plane floor, wings, and fuselage. There are batteries all over the aircraft which make up 60% of its weight. Elon Musk, on the other hand, proposes a supersonic electric jet with vertical take-off and landing that should have an energy density of at least 1.4 Megajoules per kilogram. All these only mean that we are getting closer and closer to having electric planes flying commercially or perhaps having an electric-exclusive airport of some sort. In fact, Norway required all their domestic flights to go electric by 2040.
It’s exciting to see how these electric airplanes will affect and shape the future of air travel. It’s a long and winding road, and there are still lots of obstacles along the way before it becomes commercially available and hopefully replace the kerosene-based fuel that we’ve always known. Who knows, after all, we might be leaning towards the electric version of the aero-cabs concept and honestly, I won’t be even mad if we will.
What do you think will be the future of the aviation industry? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Also, if you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends and colleagues.
Hey there! I’ve been following your site for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Porter Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the great work!