Electric planes are coming: Short-hop regional flights could be running on batteries in a few years
Electric planes could be like a futuristic idea, but they’re actually not all that far away, at the very least, for short distances.
2-seater Velis Electros are already in the air throughout Europe. Electric seaplanes are under test within British Columbia, and larger aircraft are expected to arrive. Air Canada announced on September. 15th, 2022, that it was planning to purchase 30 electric hybrid regional aircraft through Swedish company Heart Aerospace, which expects to have its 30-seater plane operational in 2028. Analysts from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab say they believe that the first electric hybrid 50-70-seat aircraft for commuters is likely to be in service in the next few years. The 2030s are when, they claim, electric aviation may actually begin to take off.
This is important for managing the effects of climate change. Around 3% of the global emissions originate from the aviation industry today. With increasing number of flights and passengers increasing as the population increases and the aviation industry is expected to produce up to five times the amount of carbon dioxide emissions in 2050 than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Assistant professor and aerospace engineer Gokcin Cinar develops sustainable aviation concepts, such as hybrid-electric aircraft as well as hydrogen fuel alternatives, at the University of Michigan. We inquired about the most effective ways to cut down on aviation emissions in the present and where new technologies like electrification as well as hydrogen are heading.
Why aviation is so hard to electrify?
Aircraft are among the most complex vehicles on the market. However, the most significant issue for electrifying them is their battery’s weight.
If you were to electrify a 737 today with modern batteries, you’d have to remove all passengers and cargo as well as take the space and fill it with batteries to fly for less than an hour.
Jet fuel is able to hold around fifty times the energy when compared to battery capacity per unit. Thus, you could possess 1 one pound of jet fuel and 50 pounds of batteries. To bridge the gap, we must either reduce the weight of lithium-ion batteries or create new batteries that can have more energy. The development of new batteries is underway. However, they’re not suitable for use in aircraft.
Air Canada and United Airlines have both ordered regional hybrid electric airplanes manufactured by Heart Aerospace that can go approximately 100 miles (200 kilometers) fully electric and up to 250 miles (400 kilometers) using hybrids. In a configuration with 25 passengers, the company claims the hybrid distance is doubled. Heart Aerospace
An alternative to electricity is hybrids.
Although we may not be able to completely electrify the 737, we could gain some fuel efficiency from the batteries of larger aircraft through technology for hybrid propellers. We’re working to do this in the near future by setting a 2030-2035 timeframe for smaller regional aircraft. The less fuel consumed in flight, the less greenhouse emission of carbon dioxide.
How can hybrid aviation help to reduce carbon emissions?
Hybrid electric aircraft are like hybrid electric vehicles in that they utilize batteries as well as aviation fuels. The problem is that no other industry is subject to the same weight restrictions that we have for aerospace.
We must be very aware of how and to what extent we’re blending propellers.
The use of batteries as an energy source to assistance during takeoffs and climbs are exciting options. A taxi ride to the runway that uses electricity alone could reduce the use of fuel and also reduce air pollution at airports. There’s a balance between the additional burden of the battery as well as the amount of power you will need to reap the benefits of fuel savings. This optimization issue is the main focus of my study.
Hybrids will continue to burn fuel during flight. However, it would be considerably less than completely relying on jet fuel.
How could hybrid electric aviation be used on large aircraft?
I envision hybridization as an intermediate option for larger aircraft but not a short-term option for smaller regional planes.
For the period 2030-2035 In the 2030-2035 timeframe, we’re looking at hybrid turboprops, which are typically regional aircraft that can carry 50 to 80 passengers or being used to transport freight. The hybrids may reduce fuel consumption by around 10%.
With the help of electric hybrids, airlines can make utilization of airports in regional areas to reduce the congestion and amount of time larger planes idle on runways.
What do you think you will be able to see in the near future in sustainable aviation?
In the short term, we’ll see more of the use of sustainable aviation fuels or SAF. With the modern engines, you can put SAF that is sustainable into the tank to burn it. Fuels made of oilseeds, corn, algae, and various other fats are being utilized.
Sustainable aviation fuels could reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of an aircraft’s net emissions by about 80 percent. However, availability is not as abundant, and the use of biomass to fuel can be in competition with food production, which could lead to the destruction of forests.
A different option is to make synthetic aviation fuels that are sustainable, which is the process of collecting carbon from the atmosphere or from other industrial processes and then synthesizing it using hydrogen. It’s a difficult and expensive process that doesn’t have a huge production capacity yet.