Are electric planes the future of aviation?
Are electric aircraft the future of aviation? In this post, I’m going to go through some of the possibilities of the future of aviation. I’m going to talk about electrification, it’s limitations and it’s advantages. I’m also going to talk about technologies that are being developed now that will help in transforming the skies.
Where are we now?
Aviation as we know it is 117 years old. Considering how advance planes are now, this number isn’t that big. From the Wright Flyer back in 1903, to today’s Airbus A350, we have come leaps and bounds in aircraft technology. Today we can fly faster than the speed of sound. We are able to carry hundreds of passengers in a single aircraft. We can fly almost an entire day without refuelling. That being said, there is one thing that hasn’t changed since those days. That one thing is the fuel we use to power our aircraft engines.
I think that the best way to project our wingfrantic minds into the future, is by first looking into the past. So with that being said, shall we cast our consciousness back into the last 117 years and mark out a few milestones?
1903 – first successful flight by the Wright brothers
1910 – first licensed female pilot
1919 – first non-stop transatlantic flight
1924 – first flight around the world
1947 – first piloted supersonic flight
1958 – first transatlantic commercial passenger service
1976 – Concorde’s maiden commercial flight (supersonic passenger flight)
1981 – first solar powered plane to cross the British channel
2005 – first flight around the world without refuelling
2016 – Wright Electric founded
2030 – Could this be the first electric aircraft?
So as you can see, the rate of change is dramatic. We went from learning how to fly, to being able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in under 20 years! With a bit more of a grasp on our history, let’s now talk about our future.
The power of Electrification
Electrification – Noun: The conversion of a machine or system to the use of electrical power.
Electrification is being batted about left right and centre at the moment. This is especially true when it comes to cars and other forms of road vehicles. Over the last decade, there has been an enormous movement in a desire for humanity to improve the way we treat our planet.
Automakers and industries in general have capitalised on this like a fly on… you know what I mean. Tesla has been monumental in disrupting the automotive industry by propelling electrification forwards in leaps and bounds. They have done this by providing electric cars that look good (well I think so anyway). Not only do they look good, but they also provide decent endurance and power that beats almost all of the petrol or diesel cars off the line.
That being said, Tesla’s electric cars are still not perfect. Although there has been a huge uptake on their electric cars, there are still a large number of people that don’t trust electric vehicles (EV’s). This is due to different reasons for different people. Some people just feel like there has to be a roar of an engine when you hit the accelerator, but it’s mainly due to some of the limitations, and I am going to talk about some of these now.
The limitations of electric aircraft
As mentioned above, cars are currently deep into the conversion cycle from gasoline engines into electrification. With that in mind, if you think of the limitations of a car, you just need to multiply to see the limitations of a plane.
A modern Airbus A320 NEO with LEAP1-A engines burns about 900-1000KG of fuel per hour in cruise. That’s approximately 15-17KG per minute! Almost double your normal allowance of hand luggage on board an aircraft. Now when you consider that, it makes you realise just how much raw energy is required to keep an aircraft airborne. How can using electricity possibly reach these heights (pardon the pun).
The first battery was developed in 1800 by an Italian physicist by the name of Alessandro Volta. In 1859, the lead-acid battery was invented, and believe it or not, this is the same technology that is currently being used in some modern cars for starting the engine.
Nowadays, the most common rechargeable batteries are Nickel-Cadmium, Nickel Metal Hydrogen and Lithium Ion. Lithium Ion batteries are most commonly found in portable electronic devices. These are the best we have in terms of commercial availability and relative affordability (lithium ion batteries being affordable to power small devices). But the problem is, they are just not efficient enough to power an aircraft.
Lithium Ion batteries are used in Tesla’s Model S. Currently they are able to provide a range of about 315 miles (507km). This is admirable, considering the poor endurance of electric cars before it. That being said, 315 miles by plane is not very far! So what can we do about this? How can we get our aircraft to fly on battery power alone? We will discuss that soon.
I’m sure you can see a pattern developing here. I’ve mentioned Tesla a lot, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to do so again.
When it comes to charging electric vehicles, Tesla is ahead of the curve. The Model S can charge for 15 minutes and provide 133 miles of range. That is an amazing feat of engineering, but let’s magnify this to the size of a plane. To charge an aircraft battery for 15 minutes won’t give you the same range. That’s because you have to take into account the enormous amount of energy you need for take-off, as well as your reserves and contingency. Sufficed to say that charging times are pretty good in the real world for cars, but not for aircraft.
With all these restraints on electric aircraft, there is one company who is pushing the boundaries of commercial electric aircraft. This company is Wright Electric.
Bringing electric aircraft to an airport near you
Wright Electric was founded by Jeff Engler in 2016. Their aim is to provide an electric commercial aircraft that can provide lower emissions, lower costs and lower turnaround times when compared to the jet engine counterparts.
They have been developing an aircraft known as the Wright 1. This seems to be bringing the future to today, but only step by step. The Wright 1 will feature electric propulsion motors, high aspect ratio wings which are more aerodynamic and energy efficient, quick swap batteries and quieter flying.
Let’s talk about the Wright 1
The Wright 1 is planned to have between 10 and 14 electric motors, each rated at 1.5megawatts. This kind of power is enormous! They are expecting to be able to fly 186 passengers for approximately 300 nautical miles. The problem of recharging will be sorted by using quick swap batteries. This means that a fully charged battery will be able to be swapped into the Wright 1 in just a matter of minutes. Beats refuelling!
Gary Smith, the Director of Operations Transformation at easyJet said the following.
We share an ambition with Wright Electric for a more sustainable aviation industry. Just as we have seen with the automotive industry, the aviation industry will be looking to electric technology to reduce our impact on the environment.
If you haven’t seen it before, here is a video with a very early proposed rendition of the Wright 1.
Wright Electric hopes that it’s electric aircraft, the Wright 1, will be flying by 2030. Ground tests of the 1.5megawatt engine is due to be taking place in 2021, with a flight test being undertaken in 2023. This is a very ambitious timeline and hopefully it will come to fruition!
On another note, London Heathrow airport have said that the first airline to bring electric aircraft into the airport will not have to pay landing fees. That’s a big incentive!
How can we accelerate electric aircraft technology
In 2004, a wondrous new material called graphene was discovered. Graphene is a form of carbon that is formed in sheets just one atom thick. Why is it so important? Well graphene has been proven to be the possible future of battery technology. If you want to learn about how this technology is becoming available in today’s technology, just have a look at the explanation in this YouTube video.
Electrification is definitely the future. Limitations are there for sure, but the answers to tackling these problems are just on the horizon. Without a doubt, within the next two decades, there will be a leap forward in the technology of electricity storage as well as electrification of most forms of transport.
The future is exciting, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I will be able to see and fly some of these aircraft before I reach my retirement!
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See you in the next one.
The Humble Pilot