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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.