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Electric Airplanes: A Green Revolution for Aviation?

According to current estimates by the David Suzuki Foundation, airplane travel contributes somewhere between 4 to 9% of global carbon emissions. This is disproportionately large relative to the size of the rapidly growing industry; since 1990, carbon emissions have increased by 83%. What can be done to mitigate the airline industry’s contributions to climate change?...

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Date

February 23, 2018

According to current estimates by the David Suzuki Foundation, airplane travel contributes somewhere between 4 to 9% of global carbon emissions. This is disproportionately large relative to the size of the rapidly growing industry; since 1990, carbon emissions have increased by 83%. What can be done to mitigate the airline industry’s contributions to climate change? Can a green technology revolution grow the industry while simultaneously reducing emissions? Electric plane manufacturers are working hard to do just that!

It is highly likely that if this greentech revolution takes place, it will begin in Scandinavia. Norway has been leading the world in the adoption of 100% electric technologies, with electric vehicles making up 32% of new cars sold in 2017. Now it looks like they will also lead a conversion to electric aviation. According to Avinor, a state-owned company that operates most of the civil airports in Norway, the country is aiming to have all short haul flights (up to 1.5 hours in length) be all-electric by 2040.

But will the technology be ready? The biggest problem with electric propulsion airplanes has tended to be the weight of the battery needed to power the flight. According to an article by Eric Adams in Wired,

“Batteries simply do not offer the power-to-weight ratio or cost needed to be feasible, and will not for some time. The technological advancements that allowed Tesla to squeeze 335 miles from the Model S and Chevrolet to get 200 out of the Bolt are not enough to power anything more than the smallest aircraft for the shortest distance.”

“The need to keep weight down without sacrificing range or power makes energy density the all-important figure. Right now, the specific energy of batteries is roughly 2 percent that of liquid fuel. Factor in the efficiency of electric powertrains compared to internal combustion engines, and yet get closer to 7 percent—so 1,000 pounds of jet fuel yields about 14 times more energy than a 1,000-pound battery.”

Batteries are just too heavy to replace standard jet fuel in standard jet designs. But for those who think this revolution is possible, both of those things are likely to quickly change. Innovation in battery design is developing exponentially fast, allowing them to be lighter and lighter for the same amount of power. Startups like Cuberg have seen huge investments from Boeing to create high-density batteries for their planes. Additionally, airplane architecture is likely to change as well, with planes changing shape dramatically to reduce drag and increase efficiency. For short flights, the electric plane of the future may already be on the horizon.

To learn more about how one company is trying to lead the charge on electric plane adoption, check out the podcast below. On this episode of “The Energy Gang”, they speak to the CEO of Zunum Aero, Ashish Kumar, about the company’s electric propulsion system and hybrid-electric airplane. The company is targeting 2019 for their first flight, and hoping to have planes in regular service by 2022.

 

Photo by Varshesh Joshi on Unsplash