Why fully electric aviation is not for tomorrow
The aviation industry is under unprecedented pressure regarding its impact on the climate. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines redouble their engagement to limit their carbon footprint. Motivated by the example of the car industry, a number of them see the electric plane as a way forward. However, that will not likely happen tomorrow.
While manufacturers are improving on the fuel efficiency of their aircraft, the technological improvement cannot keep up with the densification of traffic. Thus, electric aircraft appear as a solution for a sustainable future. And they have more than one advantage.
In addition to the reduction of carbon emissions, they also offer a reduction in noise production. With air traffic becoming increasingly dense in all regions of the world, it is a welcome quality for the cohabitation between airports and local communities.
Another incentive is the reduction of operational costs. Espen Høiby, CEO of OSM Aviation, told AeroTime that an electric trainer costs 78% less to operate than a conventional trainer. In April 2019, the Norwegian company specialized in the employment, training, and administration of cabin crew and pilots hit the news with the announcement of their transition to a fully electric fleet for training, using 60 eFlyer 2 developed by Bye Aerospace.
What exactly is drawing back the manufacturers?
The world of inventors already produced a few successful examples. In 1884, Charles Renard and Arthur Constantin Krebs piloted the first fully controllable electric vehicle, an air balloon, over eight kilometers.
In 1973, Fred Militky and Heino Britéeschka converted a Britéeschka HB-3 powered glider into an electric plane renamed Militky MB-E1. After reaching an altitude of 300 meters for a flight of fourteen minutes, it became the first manned electric aircraft.
In 2007, the BL1E Electra was the first conventional light aircraft to be powered by an electric motor. Finally, in 2015, the Airbus E-Fan crossed the Channel from Lydd, in the United Kingdom to Calais, France.
But those groundbreaking records have yet to turn into a sustainable solution. While the Pipistrel Alpha Electro is already certified in the U.S., its capacity of two people will not be enough to revolutionize the industry of air transport.
The main challenge remains technological. Engineers have to find the right balance between the weight of batteries and the amount of power needed for a flight. Current weight efficiency meant that one-third of the two-seat Airbus E-fan was dedicated to batteries. With the speed at which energy density is improving, crossing the distance between a trainer plane and an airliner should take decades.
Another problem that arises from relying on a battery is safety. A damaged battery can combust, as shown by the multiple power bank incidents that have led the ICAO council to ban all spare lithium-ion batteries from cargo holds. And if parking your Tesla on the side of the highway to watch it turn into flames and smoke is one thing, landing a plane on fire is another kind of challenge.
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