Going Green: Electric and Hybrid Aircraft
Global warming and carbon emissions are a hot-button issue for many industries around the world, and aviation is no different. While the aviation industry is responsible for just 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, there is a growing environmental concern: since 1990, the industry has seen an 83% increase in emission levels, the primary factor being the increasing number of fossil fuel-powered aircraft in the skies. Gas emissions are not the only contributor however: water vapor emissions at high altitudes create contrails, residual plumes that contribute to global warming by trapping heat emanating from the Earth’s surface within the atmosphere rather than letting it radiate out into space.
Moving towards greener propulsion systems is not just eco-friendly, however. Electric motors are lighter and cheaper than gas-powered turbines, which makes both designing and manufacturing aircraft with them easier and more affordable. British airliner EasyJet aims to bring an electric battery-powered jet to market within a decade to handle short-range flights, from New York to Boston, for instance. Batteries will be provided by Wright Electric, a team of aerospace engineers, battery chemists, and powertrain experts from groups like NASA, Boeing, and Cessna. The design could make aircraft 50 percent quieter and 10 percent cheaper to fly on, as part of EasyJet’s aim to make all short flights it charts electric within 20 years.
EasyJet is not the only company exploring this avenue. Airbus Group recently introduced a multi-passenger, autonomously piloted Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft powered by electric engines designed for urban mobility and is intended to replace gas-powered helicopters. The aircraft boasts eight pitch rotors powered by Siemens SP200D direct-drive 100 kW units connected to four 140 kW batteries. Eviation’s ‘Alice’ electric airplane weighs roughly three hundred times less than a traditional aircraft of the same size and boasts a 600-mile operating range on its 980 kWh Li-Ion battery.
The greatest challenge for designing an electric/hybrid aircraft is finding an efficient power source. High-density sources are needed to ensure a lighter aircraft doesn’t need to sacrifice on flight range for the sake of efficiency. Other challenges include managing high-voltage systems and energy-to-speed ratios, as well as thermal issues and tolerances. Fortunately, there are numerous groups both government and private working to overcome them.
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