Navigating a Surge in Electric Aviation
Every two years, the heavyweights of aviation bring their best and newest aircraft to the Paris Air Show. With the acquisition of Embraer and divestments on the part of Bombardier, the main event now consists of Boeing and Airbus, nose-to-nose on the tarmac of Le Bourget, competing for large airline orders.
A cloudy vibe marred the lead up to this years’ show with uncertainty surrounding Boeing’s latest version of its venerated twin-engine jet, the 737 MAX. However, there was a bright spot.
Her name was Alice.
The Electric Airplane
Eviation, a startup based in Israel, secured the first order from a major airline for an all-electric aircraft called Alice. Cape Air, a large US-based regional airline, placed a double-digit order for the nine-passenger plane.
Alice is designed to travel at up to 276 mph and 650 miles before recharging. If certified in 2021 as expected, she will be the first purely electric airplane in service with a primary air carrier.
Though Alice may not be alone for long. According to Roland Berger, a consultancy, electric aircraft developments are up 50 percent from just one year ago. There are now 170 in the works, and as fuel prices continue to rise, some will start to receive attention from airlines. The cost of operating Alice will reportedly be $200 per hour, compared with $1,000 per hour for a similar turboprop.
The Electric Slide
A call by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for carbon-neutral growth by 2050 is lofty; nevertheless, the economic incentives for aviation to be stainable are firmly in place.
Since 1937, with the invention of the jet engine, there have been no fundamental shifts in the propulsion system of commercial aircraft. However, engine efficiency has improved substantially and continues to do so.
Though aircraft are about 80% more fuel efficient than they were half a century ago, traffic is expected to double over the coming twenty years. As such, the current rate of efficiency innovation will not absorb the predicted growth.
This problem was brought into sharp-focus in April when Ireland-based Ryanair achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the first non-coal company to join the list of top 10 European carbon emitters.
Leading the Charge
Scandinavia has led the pack on environmental impact taxation. The economics of paying what amounts to a premium for excess pollution is up for debate, but there is no question that this has driven companies in Sweden and Norway to explore all avenues for reduced fuel consumption.
According to Dezeen, Norway is aiming to have all short-haul flights eclectically powered by 2040.
At Airbus Innovation Days last month in Toulouse, SAS Scandinavian Airlines announced an agreement with Airbus joint research into a hybrid and electric aircraft eco-system.
At Paris, Airbus announced that they hope to bring hybrid and electric jets to market by 2035 in the form of a new airplane, likely targeted to supplant the A320neo fleet in the coming decades.
United Technologies, an aerospace and defence company that owns the Pratt & Whitney engine brand, announced its intentions to launch a turboprop aircraft with one hybrid-electric engine within three years. This engine would be ‘platform agnostic’ meaning it could be developed further and adapted for several different airframes.
Rolls Royce, already working with Airbus on a hybrid-electric propulsion system, lifted the veil on their acquisition of Siemens’ eAircraft business. Rolls Royce has acclaimed this as a step to boost their electrification strategy as they approach what they call, the “third era of aviation” which will usher in “quieter and cleaner transport to the skies.”
Unfortunately, batteries are yet to match the pure energy output of jet fuel. Though the power-to-weight ratios and range lithium-ion batteries are improving by one or two percent per year, long-haul aircraft will require hybrid engines.
Due to load limitations on the landing gear, transport aircraft can take off heavier than they can land. Aircraft routinely depart with more passengers and cargo than they can land with because they burn the extra fuel weight in flight. Airlines, therefore, rely on the decreasing load in calculating the economic viability of passenger and cargo routes. As of yet, batteries do not get lighter as they lose their charge.
All this means the legacy turbofan engine is likely to remain for long-range flights. However, improving battery technology has opened up the smaller commuter markets for purely electric motors.
Seattle-based magniX, an electric motor company, will provide the power plant for Eviation’s Alice. It will also power the world’s first commercial flotilla of electric seaplanes.
In March of this year, Vancouver-based Harbour Air, with the largest seaplane fleet in North America, announced a partnership with magniX to convert their planes to electric engines. If successful, more than thirty gas-powered seaplanes would be fitted with magniX’s 750-horsepower electric motor.
The electrification of aviation is no panacea.
The electricity must be produced and stored in manners light enough to be carried aloft. It will also beg the question of how ‘refuelling’ will take shape once a plane reaches its destination.
Will there be superchargers at airports?
How will the electrical load be managed at an international airport when several aircraft are charging at once?
Also, mechanics will have to train on an entirely new model of engine. Pilots will need to learn how to troubleshoot new issues.
All that considered as the torrid growth of aviation continues, and as battery technology continues to evolve, the second half of this century should see some well-developed electric solutions propelling the aviation industry forward.