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10 July 2018updated 02 Sep 2021 5:24pm

Meet the engineers building the first electric planes

The aviation industry is under pressure to deliver more cost-effective and environmentally friendly technologies.

By Rohan Banerjee

The aviation industry understands that progress has come at a price. But what progress there has been. Since Tony Jannus conducted the world’s first scheduled commercial airline flight on New Year’s Day in 1914 – a 23-minute jaunt between St Petersburg and Tampa in Florida – air travel has facilitated industry, business and tourism across the modern world.

In 1914, Jannus flew his Benoist XIV wood-and-muslin biplane with the former mayor of St Petersburg, Abraham C Pheil, paying $400 for the privilege of being the world’s first commercial airline passenger. Pheil sat on a wooden bench in the open cockpit. Just over a century later, budget airlines operate short-haul journeys between neighbouring countries for a fraction of the price.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that annual air passenger figures will continue to rise steeply, with 7.2bn journeys predicted to be made in 2035 – a near doubling of the 3.8bn in 2016-17. Most of this growth, IATA notes, will come from “emerging markets”. The Middle East, for example, will grow strongly (4.8 per cent annually) and will see 244m more passenger journeys each year on routes to, from and within the region in the next 17 years. Europe will have the slowest regional growth rate (2.5 per cent), but this will still provide an additional 570m journeys annually. All of this growth is happening within the context of increasingly high fuel prices and rising carbon emissions.

How can the aviation industry continue to fulfil its vital role in society without damaging the planet? And so the great electric air race has begun. Industry heavyweights are now working on a solution to make air travel more sustainable and more cost-effective, without compromising on capacity or capabilities.

The Californian company Wright Electric claims that within a decade, passengers could be taking battery-powered flights as a result of its engineering partnership with Easyjet, aimed at delivering less environmental impact than conventional aircraft. “For the first time in my career, I can envisage a future without jet fuel,” Easyjet’s outgoing chief executive Carolyn McCall told The Guardian last year.

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Wright Electric says the new aircraft, which is designed to carry around 150 passengers, will be “ultra-short-haul”, with a range of about 550km. But Easyjet says this would be enough to cover a fifth of its current network, including London-Amsterdam and Paris-Geneva. Achieving the goal to fly these routes within a decade, though, depends on improvements in the power-to-weight ratio of batteries, as well as new propulsion systems – dependent on technology that doesn’t yet exist.

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Another company based in the United States, Zunum Aero, which is supported by Boeing, is building a 12-seater hybrid electric plane that it says could massively reduce operating costs for private jets, with the proposed craft to be ready by 2022. In Norway, Avinor, the public operator of the country’s airports, has the ambition to make all its short-haul flights entirely electric by 2040. More immediately, though, it plans to launch a tender offer to test a commercial route flown with a small electric plane with 19 seats, starting in 2025. But before reaching that point, Avinor said it would need to rely on intermediary technologies, such as biofuels and hybrid-electric solutions.

Smaller aircraft are more likely to take off sooner, as big planes are more complex technically and legally. François Chopard, the CEO of Starbust Accelerator, a leading investor in aerospace, explained during an interview with Quartz that larger scale electrification projects are being held back by regulatory and safety implications that the industry is still ironing out. “Fully electric larger planes are not yet ready,” he told Quartz, “because currently there is little to no regulation of electric aircraft.” Even when the technology for large electric planes is developed, the regulatory environment may take years to make them available to passengers.

Accordingly, big aerospace firms such as Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens are more conservative with their predictions for commercial application. They forecast that hybrid commuter jets will take to the skies on routes of up to 1,000km between 2030 and 2035, although the three companies have already started working on the technology that will be involved, with a view to launching the E-Fan X hybrid-electric demonstrator by 2020. The E-Fan X is based on a BAe146 aircraft in which an electric unit, powered by an on-board generator, replaces one, and eventually two, of the plane’s four gas turbine engines.

Riona Armesmith, Rolls-Royce’s chief project engineer for hybrid electric propulsion, says these engines are not solely about moving away from one kind of fuel. “Hybrid-electric and electric propulsion systems are being investigated as the next potential major step in improving propulsive efficiency as we reach the limits achievable with gas turbine technologies. Today’s limited aircraft design space could feasibly be opened up by these new technologies due to the ability to split the physical location of, or remove entirely, a hot exhaust from a propulsor by introducing an electrical network.”

Frank Anton, head of eAircraft at Siemens, agrees that “we are not betting on batteries, we are betting on hybrids. Batteries add additional power during take-off and climb.” Armesmith notes that “advances in battery technology, which have been primarily driven by the automotive industry, are beginning to make hybrid-electric and electric propulsion a feasible prospect.”

The BBC’s international business reporter, Theo Legget, offers further context. “Jet fuel makes up a significant proportion of a typical airline’s running costs. Over the past few years it has varied from 17 to 36 per cent depending on the price of oil.”

As part of its Flightpath 2050 plan, the European Commission expects the aviation industry to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent, nitrogen oxide pollution down 90 per cent, and noise pollution by 75 per cent.

Part of this could be achieved not only by electric motors, but by the radical changes in plane design that they could allow. Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer, Paul Stein, notes that motors “can be tilted more easily”, which could dramatically alter the way they fly, and the kind of airports they need. Quieter and cleaner travel might also mean that airports could be situated much nearer to city centres, and the infrastructure that provides transport to them could be simpler. Armesmith explains that electrification “could allow us to take off and land quietly, from shorter runways, therefore opening up underutilised small airfields and potentially negating the need for enormous civil engineering projects such as road and rail developments. Economies that have dispersed islands or mountainous regions, without existing road or rail infrastructure, could benefit hugely.”

She predicts that electrification will “deliver a radical shift” in passenger experiences as a result. “We can envisage that passengers could make point-to-point journeys by aircraft alone. This could mean that a passenger flies internationally from a large hub, but then completes their journey home in a much smaller aircraft by simply crossing the airfield, similar to the process of changing platforms in a train station.”

Stein says that electrification of the aviation industry is too complex for any one company to saddle the pressures of the project on its own, and that has necessitated the collaboration between key industry players like Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens. He says of the E-Fan X: “We’re taking a BAe146, an old four-engine regional aircraft, and removing the starboard inner engine, the right-hand inner engine, and replacing it with a 2MW battery from Siemens, while running a fan from Rolls-Royce. Inside the BAE146, there is a Rolls-Royce AE2100 engine that we developed for the Lockheed Hercules [a military aircraft], except now instead of driving a propeller it’s driving a generator. AirBus, meanwhile, is developing the two-tonne battery packs inside the craft or frame.”

“It’s very exciting,” Stein says, “and unless anyone comes to the party sooner, it’ll be a world-first hybrid generator. We’ll learn lessons about de-risking the technology for a natural aircraft design. The 146 has three conventional gas turbines which mean it is a low-risk solution to demonstrate this new and exciting hybrid technology.”

Ultimately, the reality of globalisation is setting the agenda for the future of flight. If people can’t and won’t stop flying, then making planes more energy-efficient and cost-effective must be the sector’s priority. Electrification, the main players are sure, is the answer.