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"Impossible" Electric Airplane Takes Flight

The Berlin Air Show witnessed a silent, clean test flight by Airbus's E-Fan two-seater aircraft, which is entirely propelled by electricity
electric airplane


The novel two-seater aircraft was designed from the outset for electrical propulsion, from its energy management system to safety features. In developing this technology, Airbus aims to one day reduce the aerospace industry's carbon dioxide emissions by an order of magnitude.
Credit: Julian Herzog via Wikimedia Commons

BERLIN—When a Panavia Tornado blasted into the clouds above the Berlin Air Show before swooping back down toward the Earth, the grounds below shook from the roar of the fighter bomber's twin engines.

When the next aircraft took to the sky, the air show went eerily quiet.

The fully electric E-Fan aircraft, engineered by Airbus Group, made one of its first public demonstrations here last week following it's first-ever flight in France on March 11.

The novel two-seater aircraft was designed from the outset for electrical propulsion, from its energy management system to safety features. In developing this technology, Airbus aims to one day reduce the aerospace industry's carbon dioxide emissions by an order of magnitude.

"It's a very different way of flying," said Jean Botti, chief technical and innovation officer at Airbus Group, "absolutely no noise, no emissions."

A series of lithium-ion batteries fitted into the wings of the plane are the sole power source for the E-Fan's two 30-kilowatt electric motors. A 6 kW electric motor in the main wheel provides extra power during acceleration and taxiing to reduce electrical power consumption on the ground.

But despite its highly energy efficient design, the E-Fan only has a one-hour range, which means it cannot leave the vicinity of an airport. To combat range anxiety, the plane is outfitted with a backup battery for landing purposes and a parachute that can be deployed as high as 2,000 feet.

Like an electric car, a gauge on the dashboard tells the pilot how much energy is in the batteries and the plane is plugged in when it needs to recharge.

"We're trying this. It's not to enter the business of small aircraft," Botti said. "It's to learn to make a new business."

Steppingstones to E.U. climate goals
Airbus Group's ultimate goal is to make a 70- to 80-person hybrid-electric commuter jet with three hours of range in the 2050 time frame. Initial designs of the E-Thrust aircraft show the plane with six electric-powered fans that will be powered by a gas-fueled energy storage unit during the ascent and cruise phase and then glide using electric power alone while descending.

In the next step toward achieving this, Airbus will make a next-generation two-seater electric plane, set for launch in 2017, and a four-seater electric plane with a gas-powered range extender, set for launch in 2019.

These advances are steppingstones toward realizing Flight Path 2050, the European Union's aggressive goal to reduce the aviation sector's nitrous oxide emissions by 90 percent, noise pollution by 65 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 75 percent by 2050.

While Airbus and other aerospace companies are pushing the limits of today's technology, it will still take a quantum leap from today's aircraft technology to meet the targets set out in Flight Path 2050, according to Botti.

Faced with looming climate regulations now under negotiation at the International Civil Aviation Organization, aircraft makers and operators around the world are also looking for incremental solutions for improving the environmental performance of their fleet.

To meet near-term industry climate goals, Airbus redesigned its A350 aircraft with the latest aerodynamic features, lightweight materials and advanced technologies. According to Airbus, the new A350 XWB achieves a 25 percent improvement in fuel economy over the Boeing 777 and a 6 percent improvement over the Boeing 787, two jets that currently dominate the long-haul market.

The new Airbus A320neo also features advanced fuel-efficient technologies, including a state-of-the-art engine by the U.S. company Pratt & Whitney. The new engine reduces fuel use by up to 20 percent, saving $2.5 million and up to 3,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per airplane per year.

New Solar Impulse challenge on the horizon
Several commercial air carriers, including Lufthansa, Alaska Air and United Airlines, are also reducing their carbon footprints by developing and testing their planes on biofuels. To help increase fuel availability, British Airways announced a partnership earlier this year to create a new jet fuel from municipal waste (ClimateWire, April 25).

Continuing to adopt energy efficient and renewable energy technology in aerospace and other sectors is essential if humanity is to succeed in combating climate change, according to Bertrand Piccard, Swiss doctor, explorer and pilot of the zero-emissions airplane Solar Impulse.

Last year, Piccard and fellow pilot André Borschberg traversed the United States in the solar-powered plane, flying night and day, without using one drop of fuel. Using solar cells and a battery, the plane could theoretically stay in the air forever if the pilot didn't need to take breaks.

The Solar Impulse was built using technologies that already exist like electric motors, lighting systems and efficient gears. If these types of technologies were widely available on the market, global energy consumption could be cut in half, said Piccard, speaking last week at the International Transport Forum summit in Leipzig, Germany, taking place concurrently with the Berlin Air Show.

On a mission to encourage more pioneering solutions to the climate crisis, Piccard and his team intend to fly around the entire world in the Solar Impulse 2.

"Solar Impulse ... is not only an airplane that is made to do spectacular flights," he said. "For me, it's a tool to show the people incredible things are possible, impossible things even are possible, with these technologies."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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