Electric airplanes – Will flying ever go green?
The air travel industry wants more efficient – and thereby greener – airplanes in order to boost profits and improve its image in an increasingly environmentally conscious world.
According to a piece in the Economist on new, more efficient designs for jet engines, jets are now roughly twice as fuel efficient as they were in the 1960s and 80% quieter. The new designs discussed in the piece – made by small Israeli firm R-Jet – have not yet been picked up by any major player in the airline industry, though R-Jet claims their engines could cut fuel use by a further 25%.
That is significant progress, but as jet engines have become more fuel efficient, air travel has increased exponentially, and the associated increased emissions far overshadow any advances in fuel efficiency.
In light of the fact that air travel isn’t slowing down, but oil reserves are limited, increasingly dangerous and expensive to get at, might electric planes be the answer to one of the world’s most unsustainable industries?
From a 2009 Wired article:
Electric airplanes are experiencing a development boom similar to that seen during the first airplanes 100 years ago. Electric cars are getting all the headlines, but aircraft designers around the world are working at a feverish pitch to bring to market an electric airplane that meets Federal Aviation Administration standards. An electric airplane flew at Airventure, the massive annual airshow in Oshkosh, Wisc., for the first time last year .
The electric planes that exist now are mostly battery-powered gliders, but there is a two-seater electric airplane under development, which will have the ability to fly for two hours and reach a top speed of128kph (80mph). And a Chinese electric two-seater has already been flown with a calculated cost of 1/10th that of similarly sized light aircraft and a flying time of three hours.
Possibilities for lengthening battery times borrow from hybrid vehicle technology, such as using the plane’s propellers to charge the battery while in flight. Other green airplane technologies include incorporating solar panels and using hydrogen cells instead of batteries.
For more on this subject, check out the article ‘Electric planes: High voltage’ in the Economist.