Don’t Expect To See Large Electric Planes Until At Least 2040

When the opportunity was presented to hear whether large electric planes are a myth or reality, I knew I had to listen carefully. The topic of electric aircraft often leads to heated debate on Simple Flying, so I hoped this would put things into context. Here’s what I found out.

electric plane
Why aren’t we all flying about in electric planes yet? Photo: Airbus

Where are all the electric planes?

Electric planes are a hot topic right now. I mean, it seems a simple solution to all the climate change, flight shame concerns that the industry has right now; just stick a battery in it, right? They’ve done it with cars, so…

Unfortunately, real life is not as simple as that. Sure, an electric aircraft on paper is an all-round winner. It would be quiet, reduce CO2 emissions locally and the actual engine/motor part would be far less complex. That would make it easier to maintain and is less likely to go wrong. The problem is, you can’t just stick a battery into a regular plane.

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Andreas Klöckner, Coordinator Electric Flying Program Strategy Aeronautics at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) illustrated the problem at the recent IATA Wings of Change conference with this image:

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electric plane
Andreas Klöckner shared a scale representation of how big a battery would have to be to power a commercial jet. Photo: Simple Flying

To get a typical narrowbody off the ground with today’s battery technology, as you can see, would be impossible. The battery would be enormous. It would add huge amounts to the weight too. Mark Dunnachie from ATR said as much at AviaDev this year, stating that a battery weighing 20 tonnes would be required for an ATR aircraft, which is roughly equal to its MTOW.

So, right now, it’s no more possible to turn a large passenger plane into an electric plane than it is to solve climate change by sailing across the Atlantic.

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What can be done now?

Nevertheless, there has never been more action in the field of developing electric aircraft than there is right now. In fact, there are a few working models out there, and one which has even gained its FAA Certification. The Pipistrel Alpha Trainer seats one person and has a range of around 373 miles (600km). Good for pilot training schools, but not much else.

Pipistrel Alpha trainer
The Pipistrel Alpha trainer. Photo: New York-air via Wikimedia

Moving up to something larger, Eviation is working on a nine-passenger electric plane called Alice. They are looking to gain FAA approval by 2022, but with such a small capacity for pax and a range of just 650 miles (1,046 km), it’s still not going to be the commercial aircraft replacement we need.

Eviation Alice
The Eviation Alice is a fully electric aircraft, but only for nine passengers. Photo: Eviation

These existing aircraft use some few hundred kilowatts of power; the next step is to move towards a megawatt of power. Andreas explained where the next step from here would be.

electric plane
This demonstrator commuter plane is used by DLR to test new technology. Photo: Simple Flying

“This aircraft has half a megawatt on each side, so that’s a good step towards testing new technologies. This will still be just a demonstration aircraft, to test various new tech as it comes along. As a product, it might be there by the end of the 2020s,” Andreas commented.

What about large electric aircraft?

To begin looking at replacing the gas turbine powerhouses required to move something bigger is a step up again. Andreas explained,

“If we then go even bigger and look at the workhorse A320, that will take some time. That will probably also take some new technologies. We’re thinking fuel cells here, which are not ready yet, but would be needed to fly something of such a large size.”

Not only is the technology not quite ready for a large electric passenger plane just yet, but the plane that it ends up being might not be quite like we’re used to. Andreas shared some images of how an electric plane could eventually appear.

Electric plane
It’s a plane, Jim, but not as we know it. Photo: Simple Flying

“We would also need to take advantage of all the configuration benefits that we can generate. Things like boundary layer or distributed propulsion; all of these will probably need to be integrated into the aircraft. Because a large aircraft like this, if you want to make it electric, you’re really at the limit of technical possibilities.”

Taking all that into account, we’re clearly a long way off a working electrified large aircraft. But how far off? Andreas took a stab,

“What would be the timescale for this? We’re thinking maybe 2040; something like this.”

As well as developing the actual aircraft design, there’s a whole load of infrastructure development that’s got to go on behind the scenes in order to make electrification of flight a workable possibility. Charging up electric aircraft by fossil fuels would be a false win, and even getting the charging facilities of the right numbers at the right airports poses a logistical challenge.

That’s not to say we will never have a large electric passenger plane; only that it won’t be happening any time soon.

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atlas

20 years to a full electric replacement for a320/b737?
When now developing a new aircraft takes around 10 years?
Technology which could achieve this is not in research.
So electric replacement for a320/b737 is far far away. First a new revolutionary battery has to be developt. After that it could be 10 years to a big plane.
And im hearing about revolution in batteries for 20 years, and nothing big has changed.
Without battery no time frame can be said.

Aviation_Fan

Might as well just look into more bio-fuel and engines that put out way less emissions.. 20 years from now is too long.

Bryce

I don’t agree with the “20 years is too long” remark. If ground based technologies switch to carbon-neutral energy sources, then the relatively small emissions produced by aviation become much more tenable. In addition, it’s time that serious consideration was given to CO2 ingestion facilities, as a way of removing excessive CO2 from the atmosphere.

The only really viable bio-fuel is algae-based…which is also immature technology at present. I don’t agree that it puts out “less emissions”: it puts out the same emissions, but these are compensated by the CO2 ingested by the production process.

William

There is no climate crisis. We have time and mustn’t be fooled. CO2 increases and climate change are being hyped in order for green billionaires and carbon credit trading billionaires to make money. They’re also being hyped for political reasons. AOC “green new deal” is as much about free university and college. It will make us poor and put people into poverty. The state of the planet is great. The plane is greener now than it has been at any time in 100 years and trees are in far greater abundance. There has been no sea level rises outside of… Read more »

Bryce

@William Apart altogether from the issue of climate, one can also just view the current discussion as an exchange of engineering ideas, prompted by the reality that — some day — our reserves of fossil fuels will run out. Although many of the readers on this site realize that aviation’s contribution to CO2 emission is very small, that’s not necessarily the case for the majority of the (uninformed) electorate; so, whether we like it or not, the aviation world may be forced into a particular situation by policy makers…and that may happen sooner rather than later. In such a scenario,… Read more »

Karl

@William It appears that you take any opportunity to spread disinformation in off-topic disturbed ramblings — at this website and at other sites. I’m not going to waste my time debating doctrinaire climate change deniers such as yourself. However, it’s worth pointing out that in addition to most of your other misleading claims, your claim about CO2 saturation just demonstrates a hilarious level of meta-ignorance on your part (i.e. Dunning-Kruger effect). – Here’s a link from Skeptical Science (Getting skeptical about global warming skeptiscism). https://skepticalscience.com/saturated-co2-effect.htm Quote (excerpt): The mistaken idea that the Greenhouse Effect is ‘saturated’, that adding more CO2… Read more »

Karl

Addendum A Saturated Gassy Argument http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/06/a-saturated-gassy-argument Quote (excerpt): “The simple physics explanations for the greenhouse effect that you find on the internet are often quite wrong. These well-meaning errors can promote confusion about whether humanity is truly causing global warming by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Some people have been arguing that simple physics shows there is already so much CO2 in the air that its effect on infrared radiation is “saturated”— meaning that adding more gas can make scarcely any difference in how much radiation gets through the atmosphere, since all the radiation is already blocked. And besides,… Read more »

Karl
Bryce

@Karl Just a small tip: my experience has indicated that trying to counter climate-denial arguments from people with an entrenched point of view is like throwing raw meat to a shark: it basically just adds fuel to the fire. On another post here a few days ago — regarding closure of an airport in Greenland due to thawing permafrost — I made a neutral engineering comment about ground subsidence, and got laughed at by a mob of uninformed climate-deniers. I just shrugged it off. Remember that most people don’t exactly have a stellar intellect 😉 Some of the stuff in… Read more »

Karl

Quote: “Just a small tip: my experience has indicated that trying to counter climate-denial arguments from people with an entrenched point of view is like throwing raw meat to a shark: it basically just adds fuel to the fire.”

I know and that’s why I indicated that I’m not going to waste my time debating William.

However, William’s misguided certainty about CO2 saturation warranted a response. 😉

Karl

Addendum Quote: “Some of the stuff in William’s comment is valid, some is semi-valid, and a lot is contrarian. But, in my opinion at least, he still has a right to have his say.” A contrarian should include only those who have actually published a scientific paper. The visibility of the contrarian would be measured in the number of scientific citations from the contrarian’s scientific publications. The fact of the matter is that most of the people who claim to be contrarians to Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are not scientists, and the ones who are have very thin credentials. There… Read more »

Bryce

First of all: hats off for writing this article, which will contain a lot of new facts for lots of people. I found it interesting to see reference to “boundary layer” in the article; although it’s not entirely clear to me what’s meant here, it may be a reference to so-called “ground effect” aircraft. Ground effect aircraft have a much higher lift-to-weight ratio than conventional aircraft, but they can fly over water only, and they do so just above the surface…not at kilometers height. In that respect, they’re a sort of hybrid between a hovercraft and a hydrofoil, with the… Read more »

Bryce

The reference to “boundary layer” in the article may also (and probably does) refer to this technology:

https://www.greencarcongress.com/2016/12/20161212-bli.html

TonytTDK

Does this article therefor imply that DeHavillands Comet or the various rear-engined T-tails over the years, were utilising the boundary-layer airflow & milking some of its benefits, without realising (or maybe even being aware of them.?

Louis O.

Would not be hydrogen a better way to store electric energy on a plane?

Bryce

That’s what’s used in the referenced fuel cells…

Eric

There’s an electric aircraft at the finishing stages of development that could handle about one-third of commercial flights worldwide (650 miles) and aircraft tend to be more efficient when they’re bigger.

To say that there’s nothing practical on the horizon when full utilization of aircraft in this range would materially reduce aviation climate impacts in my opinion doesn’t make a lot of sense…

Bryce

Have you got any literature references that describe this particular aircraft to which you allude?

Matt

Hydrogen still doesn’t have the energy density that fossil fuels do, but at least it can be compressed. In 20 years, besides some of the fringe aircraft described you’ll see aircraft similar to today, but likely with more improvements in bypass ratios, and composite use.

Bryce

I agree with you, at least where long-haul is concerned. Add algae-based bio-fuel to your list, and it really helps to get the environmentalists off your back.
For short-haul (up to 2-3 hours), you might (eventually) see some sort of fuel-cell electric aircraft emerging

Karl

@Matt

Liquid hydrogen (LH2) powered aircraft have been studied in detail, are very doable, and is the best option for long-range, non-carbon aviation. LH2 has only around 30 percent as much energy per volume, but Jet-B has only some 30 percent as much energy per mass. LH2 has to be stored in large rounded tanks in a fatter fuselage. The increased tank and fuselage weight, decreased fuel weight, and increased fuselage drag roughly balance out, so range and energy cost are similar to today’s.

Javed

Assuming one day in the near future we have electric planes in the next 20years that can fly the same range as the A320/B737s, how long will it take to recharge the batteries. If the batteries cannot be charged fast enough to allow a short turn around time, airlines wont be interested in the model as they wont be making any money. Also will the economies of scales be achieved for these newer technologies by then? In an environment where manufacturers are willing to sell aircraft at cut-throat prices, will airlines be interested in paying 2x or 3x the cost… Read more »

Bryce

The battery charging problem is obviated by using fuel cells and hydrogen; the hydrogen can be re-stocked in much the same way as kerosene.

As regards economy: there’s no particular reason why the new technology would necessarily have to be more much expensive than the old. For one, the electromotors used would probably be a lot cheaper than the gas turbine engines on today’s aircraft.

William

Synthetic hydrocarbon fuels or cryogenic hydrogen represent a much better solution for 3 reasons: 1 They can be made fairly efficiently (about 60% or better). 2 Despite the fact that batteries are more efficient an electric aircraft that might fly between Dublin and London will have a mass fraction of 55%, somewhat greater than an aircraft that could fly Sydney to London nor will that weight reduce during the flight. Electric aircraft will be 3 times larger for the same payload except in the case of very small distances and this reduces their efficiency. 3 The Generation of electrical energy… Read more »

Bryce

I presume that hydrogen combustion to thermally drive a turbo fan is a big no-no, because it’s generally not a good idea to have combustion going on anywhere near a volume of hydrogen. Systems employing cryogenic hydrogen will be using it to generate electricity in fuel cells…agreed? Or do you still see a role for hydrogen combustion?

William

The first jet engine in the world (ran about 3-4 weeks before Whittle’s), von Ohain’s HeS 003A ran of hydrogen and its actually possible to design a lighter engine with it. There are however fuel handling issues. The proposals Ive seen are aircraft like the Dornier 328JET with a pair of large cryogenic fuel tanks outboard of the engines looking like drop tanks and an A300 with a single cryogenic tank along to top of the spine. Hydrogen rises up so its safer underneath it than above it. Building a system of cryogenic refuelling points at major Airports could be… Read more »

Karl

Here’s a concept for a liquid hydrogen powered A320-sized aircraft: Polaris – Future Aircraft Design Concept https://www.dlr.de/dlr/Portaldata/1/Resources/documents/2018/Universitaet_Stuttgart_Polaris.pdf – Abstract Looking at aviation in 2045 a competitive operation of aircraft will not only be dependent on highly efficient aircraft, but also on passenger comfort, manufacturing effort and an excellent life cycle. The present report provides a breakdown of an aircraft design study with consideration of future aviation goals and proposals that might further improve the design with regard to pollutant and noise emissions. An adjusted design process is used to find the synergies of all components and to combine their advantages… Read more »

Bryce

Looks interesting. Great to see that a university is working seriously on something like this. I note that this concept is using hydrogen combustion in a gas turbine so as to generate electricity, which is then used to power electromotors…so these people are evidently comfortable having a combustion-based system in combination with hydrogen — risky, but not impossible. I find that they’re rather optimistic with regard to the availability and performance of HTCs (high-temperature superconductors)…but time will tell if/how that works out. HTCs are brittle and difficult to machine, so they’re use in machinery has been problematic. But there may… Read more »

Karl
Karl

Here’s a PhD thesis looking at LH2-powered aircraft with internal-combustion turbofan engines: The Potential of Liquid Hydrogen for long range aircraft propulsion https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/139335.pdf 2.3.2 Modifications to the turbofan design and performance tool (Page 32) Excerpt The thermodynamic changes by switching from kerosene to hydrogen are accounted for by importing the proper combustion gas properties data into the tool. This will not be reported here as it is described in Appendix C. Below the implications of the fuel switch on the amount of cooling air required to maintain the turbine metal temperature to a certain value are described first. A next… Read more »

Bryce

Joanna, look what I just found on Reuters! Further content seems to be embargoed at the moment, but perhaps you’d like to write an article here as soon as more is known?

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-airbus-emissions/airbus-considering-production-of-hybrid-airplane-by-2035-idUSKBN1Y30PJ

Nicholas Cummins

THis is a great artcile

Shapes

Sheeples, the ruling elite are laughing at you. Do you think there is no technology that can build a lightweight strong, fuel efficient car or aircraft that doesn’t run on 80-100 year old petrol burning technology?

Bryce

Another idealist that thinks that technological innovation just falls out of the sky…like the Sword of Gryffindor in Harry Potter…
Let me guess: you think that the technology is already there, but that there’s a conspiracy to keep it out of production…right?

William

Im surprised the water powered car hasn’t come up yet.

Shapes

I can assure you that most technology development is carried out in secrecy, especially for the military and companies with huge investments at stake.
The IPhone is a good example of technology designed deliberately to expire and be “upgraded” every 2 or 3 years, the Lockheed skunk works a good example of what can be hidden for decades without public knowledge.
The trickle of technology is part of the supply and demand, consumer society we live in.
Ps sorry but I have not seen Harry Potter.