Electric Aircraft: Past, Present and Future

NASA's X57 Experimental Electric Aircraft
NASA's X57 Experimental Electric Aircraft

The transportation sector is a major polluter, one of the largest source of greenhouse gases. We know that greenhouse gases are the cause of global warming and climate change. That’s why we want to electrify our modes transportation. But, if we really want to stop climate change, then we have to electrify all modes of transportation, not just cars. This means electric cars, electric trucks, electric planes, electric ships etc, everything.

What is an electric aircraft?

An electric aircraft is an aircraft which is powered by electric motors instead of the conventional aircraft engines. The electricity required for the electric motors may come from batteries, solar cells, or other sources. Today’s electric aircrafts are odd looking, low range and altitude, same as electric cars were before the advent of Tesla Inc.

Why electric aircraft?

Aircrafts fly at high altitudes. Hence their emissions have a higher impact on the environment than other mode transport, especially on the ozone layer. The take-off and landing of an aircraft is also a very energy intensive process, which means more greenhouse gas emissions.

Next look at the table below (Source European Environment Agency):

Mode of Transportation No. of Passengers Grams of CO2 per passenger km
Train 156 14
Motorbike 1.2 72
Small Car 4 42
Small Car 1.5 104
Big Car 4 55
Big Car 1.5 158
Aircraft 88 285

It is very clear from the table that aircraft are the most polluting means of transportation. But, electric aircrafts can change the scene.

History of Electric Aircraft

PKZ-1, the first electric aircraft flew in 1918. However, it was not very successful, completing only three test flights. In the fourth test flight, the wiring insulation of its electric engine burned and was never repaired. The power density of the electric batteries was not sufficient to support any commercial use electric aircraft. Soon, its development went into hibernation.

By the 1970s, electric aircraft development began again. The first manned electric aircraft was flown in 1973. In 1979, the first solar-powered aircraft flew. Modern unmanned solar-powered aircrafts can remain airborne for days.

Major components of an electric aircraft

  • Battery: The first electric aircraft, PKZ-1 used tethering wires (using which it was connected to the ground). This limited the height it could achieve (up to 50m). But nowadays we use batteries so that it can go higher and farther. Nowadays, we mostly use lithium-based batteries ( before this Nickel-Cadmium battery were used).
  • Solar cells: Solar panels consisting of many cells can be added to extend the range or endurance (total flight time) almost indefinitely. Although, it will have to return for maintenance. The solar cells recharge the batteries during daytime for use at night, when sunlight is not available. Usually, the solar panels are placed on the wings for maximum area.
  • Electricity Generator: Although not necessary, an electricity generator can be used for generating electricity for the motors. This would eliminate the need for batteries. Otherwise, both electric generator and batteries can be used in conjunction.
  • Electric motor: It is the most important part of an electric aircraft, as without it an aircraft can’t be called as an electric aircraft.

What does the future hold for electric aircraft?

As battery and photovoltaic technology continue to improve, we would continue to see electric aircrafts with better speed, range, endurance and useful load capacity. In the near future, we would see electricity powered air taxis (Uber is working on one) with a modest capacity of 2-4 passengers, commercial electric aircrafts with longer range and payload. We would see electric aircrafts beaming internet from the skies in disaster-struck areas. Recently, Solar Impulse 2 completed the world’s first circumnavigation of the Earth by a solar-powered electric aircraft. Although it took Solar Impulse 16 to complete the circumnavigation with only one person onboard, it does give us a hope that one day we will fly bigger electric aircrafts with better range and speed. I think the future is bright for electric aircrafts.

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Aftab Alam

Editor at Verit Nation.

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1 Response

  1. December 24, 2017

    […] even here. We need to continue the electrification of transportation (beyond cars to ships, aircrafts), increase the share of renewable resources in electricity generation, invent new eco-friendly […]

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