The transport sector has been heavily dependent on using fossil fuels. This has been a frustration for energy policy. With electric vehicles, including trucks, starting to make progress, it is good to see that there are now efforts to develop electric aircraft. Alan Tovey explains about latest progress in an article on The Telegraph website.
Electric aircraft near take-off as Rolls-Royce and Airbus team up to build ‘e-jets’
Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens have teamed up to develop the technology needed to create electrically powered aircraft.
In 2020 the companies plan to fly a demonstrator aircraft with one of its existing jet engines replaced by an electric unit.
The engine will use a fan powered by electricity from an on-board generator located in the fuselage of the “E-Fan X”.
The companies hope the concept demonstrator – which will also contain batteries, making it a hybrid aircraft – will help perfect the technology that could see “electric jets” flying short-haul routes of about one hour within a generation.
Paul Stein, chief technology officer at Rolls-Royce, said: “Aviation is the last frontier of the electrification of transport. It could lead to a step change in the way we fly with greater efficiency and less noise.”
Successfully developing an electric aircraft could reduce fuel consumption by up to 10pc, predicted Mark Cousin, head of flight demonstration at Airbus, potentially making flights cheaper – if airlines are willing to pass on the savings.
The partners also say that electric jets, which use a gas turbine to generate electricity, which is then routed to propellors located around the aircraft, would also “significantly” reduce the amount of noise.
They expect the technology to be first used in regional aircraft seating about 100 to 150 people, servicing the shortest of short-haul routes such as London and Paris. Ultimately it could be extended to long-haul routes.
Moving to electric aircraft would help the aviation industry meet EU targets which by 2050 want to see a 60pc reduction in emissions of CO2, 90pc less NOx and noise 75pc lower.
Although the gas turbine would drive the propellors through a generator system, batteries would provide extra power only when it is needed, such as during take-off, making aircraft more efficient overall.
Mr Stein said the technology could revolutionise the way air travel is perceived.
“Quieter aircraft could move runways much closer to city centres,” he said. “Flying on electric aircraft could be the norm for travel between cities, even replacing rail – you do not need to lay out railway tracks fanning out from train stations for these aircraft.”
He said he expected such changes to take place in emerging markets rather than developed ones.
Each of the companies involved is spending tens of millions on the research, and the partnership is in talks with the UK Government about help funding the project.
Mr Cousin said that if the talks, which are being held through the Aerospace Technology Institute, were successful it could see much of the research being carried out in the UK.
He added that the UK was well placed to take the lead in the technology, with major companies involved. In the US rival projects involve start-up companies.
Airbus has been investigating electric aircraft for several years and its E-Fan demonstrator has been a regular highlight of airshows, putting on silent aerobatic displays.
The company thought it had earned itself a place in the record books in 2015, when the E-Fan made a cross-Channel flight. However, a row blew up when it emerged stunt pilot Hugues Duval flew from Calais, France to England and back in a tiny Cri Cri plane just hours before Airbus’ planned flight.
Airbus argued that Mr Duval’s flight did not count as the first electric aircraft to make the Channel crossing as it was towed into the air, while the E-Fan made it aloft under its own power.
In an interview with the Telegraph last year, Rolls chief executive Warren East said he was determined to lead the company into the future, part of which he said was electric engines.
Mr East indicated he initially encountered some resistance to such a goal, describing electrification as “a niche sport when I arrived”.
Budget airline easyJet is also investigating the technology and has forecast that airliners driven by electricity could be plying short-haul routes within a decade.
Dame Carolyn McCall, the outgoing chief executive of the airline, has previously said she was excited to “envisage a future without jet fuel”, adding that it was “a matter of when, not if, a short-haul electric plane will fly”.
In the autumn easyJet announced it had partnered with US group Wright Electric with the goal of creating an aircraft capable of flying about 330 miles, meaning it would be capable of operating on about 20pc of the carrier’s routes.
Such an aircraft would be half as noisy as current jets, making it more likely to operate from airports with noise restrictions that limit flying hours.
As well as being less harmful than aircraft powered by gas turbines, it is estimated such a craft would be 10pc cheaper to operate.
Wright Electric has already built a prototype two-seat aircraft and aims to build a 10-seat version next, with the goal of producing a small airliner capable of holding 120 or more passengers.