InTrans / May 26, 2016

It’s electric: Battery power

Go! Magazine

Airplaneposted on May 26, 2016

Can you believe, in the United States, only 10 percent of the energy we consume comes from renewable sources? So, what’s a renewable energy source? You’ve probably heard of them before: wind energy, solar energy, hydroelectric energy, geothermal energy, and biomass. In the next few articles, we’ll be talking about how renewable energy sources are being put to use in the world of transportation; from solar power to wind energy, some engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs are taking advantage of these eco-friendly energy alternatives.

Most of us have heard of an electric-powered car—and maybe an electric-powered boat—but have you ever heard of an electric-powered aircraft?

When the dream of flight first became a reality with the help of the Wright Brothers—just over 100 years ago—it may have been hard to imagine a world where aircraft could run on something other than fuel. Furthermore, what would the Wright Brothers have thought of an aircraft running without using fuel at all?

Rather than typical internal combustion engines, electric aircraft have electric motors, getting their energy from fuel cells, solar cells, ultracapacitors, power beaming, or batteries. In this article, we’ll be looking at some of the latest aircraft to hit the sky.

Batteries can do more

In our last article we looked at the Solar Impulse 2, an aircraft making an around-the-world flight independent from fuel. But solar energy isn’t the only renewable source being put to use; there are many new frontiers in the world of aviation today.

Take, for example, the Airbus E-Fan—an electrically-powered aircraft prototype created by Airbus Group Innovations (AGI). The E-Fan runs on 100 percent electric power.

Airbus E-Fan
Airbus E-Fan. Photo from Wikipedia.

This highly innovative aircraft uses onboard lithium batteries to power its two electric motors. Measuring about 21 feet in length, with a wingspan of over 30 feet, the E-Fan fits one crew member plus one passenger.

In July 2015, Didier Esteyne—the pilot and designer of the E-Fan—flew across the English Channel, making his way from England to France on battery power. The E-Fan was the first all-electric, two-engine aircraft to make the crossing.

Airbus Group hopes to use their aircraft for pilot training in the next four to five years, while simultaneously using it as “a platform for understanding the potential of electric propulsion.”

Why electric power?

Why should we care if aircraft run on fossil fuels versus renewable sources?

The answer is simple: our environment is at stake! In the past 150 years, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen an estimated 35 percent; the luxury of flying comes with a considerably large carbon footprint. 1

Traditional aircraft engines emit heat, noise, particulates, and gases into our environment, which could be contributing to climate change. When compared alongside the Airbus E-Fan, aircraft running on fossil fuels are put to shame: the lightweight E-Fan is carbon dioxide emission-free and is almost silent during flight. On top of that, the E-Fan costs a mere $11 per hour to fly. 2

Consider this: in 2020, aviation emissions are projected to be around 70 percent higher than they were in 2005 (even if fuel efficiency improves by 2 percent each year). Additionally, the International Civil Aviation Organization estimates that by 2050, they could grow by a further 300–700 percent. 3

Why not electric power?

So, if an aircraft can run without producing harmful emissions, using things like battery and solar power instead, why aren’t more aircraft with these principles taking off?

The E-Fans main limitation is endurance; so far, the E-Fan model can only spend 60 minutes in the air without stopping to recharge. Electric air travel could be one of many answers to the environmental crisis, but not without advancements.

Most electric planes can only accommodate one or two people. Ironically, electric flight’s greatest strength may also be its greatest weakness. These renewable power sources need to find a way to store more energy, otherwise, these electric aircraft will continue to have limitations on speed and weight capacities, as well as flight time.

What’s next?

But as science advances so does technology. What could the future look like?

AGI and its partners have short-, medium-, and long-term goals for the future development of electric planes. In 2017, the E-Fan aircraft will be put into production. Within the next decade, Airbus’s medium-term plans include a short-range commuter and business aircraft with a target capacity of 10 passengers.

E-Fan pilot prepares for flight
E-Fan pilot prepares for flight. Photo courtesy of Airbus Group.

Electric aircraft have their limitations, but don’t fear—it’s the age of technology! In the next decade or two, the technology of batteries for electric aircraft is anticipated to evolve. Or, could aircraft harness the power of the wind? In our next article, we’ll be looking at one mode of transportation that does!



By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer

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