• Oshin Mittal

Do you know: Can We Have Electric Planes?

Updated: Apr 6

What could a future with electric planes look like ?

Companies have been betting on battery-powered planes for better and cleaner future. But even though electric planes have been around since 1970s, they haven't really taken off. So what's keeping them grounded ?

In late 1800s, two French army officers experimented with electricity to proper an airship, but they ran into problems when the battery just couldn't hold the enough energy. This would become a recurring problem for the next 100 years. When Nickel-Cadmium batteries were invented, the first flight with an electric motor took off, but it only lasted less than 15 minutes. Then in 1980s Lithium-ion batteries were invented. They could store more power than ever before leading to planes like Solar Impulse 2.

Starting in 2015, the solar powered aircraft spent 16 months flying around the world, except it flew at an average speed of 28-34 mph. Solar Impulse 2 is a part of movement in recent years to develop alternative energies, especially when people and government started realizing just how bad flying was for the environment. The aviation industry emitted about 1 billion tons on carbon dioxide in 2019. That's about 2.5% of global carbon emissions. That might not sound like a lot, but it's almost as much as an entire continent of South America emits in a year. We need to make changes to the industry, and electrification is the biggest trend which will hopefully reduce the burden on the environment.

Electric planes have been on people's mind for a while but two big problems are keeping electric grounded.

  1. Technology

  2. Certification

The technology is not quite ready. When you're trying to get an electric plane off the ground, you want a battery that packs a lot of punch in a little package but batteries are not as efficient as gas. A battery's efficiency or ability to hold power is measured in specific energy. Right now, even the best batteries have specific energy of only 250 watt-hours per kilogram, but we have to get closer to around the figure of 800 to rally get to flying and that is still nothing compared to jet fuel's specific energy which is nearly 12000 watt-hour per kilogram. Another factor is that batteries are heavy. So, if you want to add more power to a plane, you need to get a bigger battery and to get the plane airborne despite the weight, you will need even bigger battery which is more powerful, but that means more weight.

But even if the engineer's design a plane around the shortfall in battery tech, they have to take on the industry's second hurdle - Certification. Companies have to prove every inch of their aircraft is safe, passing a series of test, one of which is to make sure that battery cells wont catch fire. If something goes wrong, you can't stop. You can't pull to the side of the road. There's only one place for the airplane to go and so the regulatory stringency is much higher, the requirements for reliability, redundancy, and safety are much higher for a good reason. You have no alternative. The certification takes years to complete. So the companies have got creative. They have started to retrofit the old planes i.e. they take out the gas-guzzling, emission-creating engines and the fuel system and replacing that space and weight with the electric-propulsion system. Retrofitting has happened in phases. The problem, though, is that limits you to what the plane structure is already built for. So if the original motor is, say, thousand pounds and you remove it, then you will have to replace for that weight in order to balance and maintain the force and the thrust. Electric motors are smaller and lighter than gas ones but remember, those batteries are heavier. So you lose range because batteries with same weight are less powerful.

For the electric planes to be successful in long run, they'll have to go farther. Each electric plane in development is different, but they all have one thing in common that they are going after flights under 500 miles. And while it may not seem like an impressive distance, these short-range electric planes could solve a major problem in travel. In 2018, a little less than half of all air tickets sold globally were for flights under 500 miles, but instead of using small, efficient planes designed for these shorter routes, we often use expensive airliners built to fly thousands of miles. These planes are most efficient if they are able to cruise for a long period of time but on a flight that's 50 minutes, these planes go up and they come right back down. In the last four decades flying regional with commercial jets got so expensive for airlines in the US, Europe and Australia that they began stopping service to regional airports. Today of the 20,000 FAA approved runways in the US, only 2.5% are currently active. The regional airports left are running at a loss or even going bankrupt but electric planes could be a fix and there is already an infrastructure for them to function. Omer says that 11,000 of those 20,000 runways could support electric planes which is a lot cheaper to operate. Its a ten fold increase of the potential destinations, all the while not having significant burdens on the communities of noise and pollution. As for the distant future, electric aviation could come in all kinds of forms.

Uber is already working on an electrical vertical take off and landing vehicle. Even big players like Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce are betting on this future.