Can battery-powered flight get off the ground?
Whether you are powering a remote control for the TV or an electrically powered car until recently, you would have been using one type of battery – lithium-ion. But the position of lithium-ion batteries as the dominant force in the realm of portable power generation is about to change.
In recent years there has been a desire for more ecologically friendly methods of power. Added to this, there has been a growing understanding that many of the minerals used to create power cells may not exist in the quantities needed to meet the ever-growing demand. Soon there will be an added number of post-lithium-ion batteries coming into broader use.
As fossil fuels become less socially acceptable, new power methods will have to be found for existing sectors. One such industry is powered flight. Battery-powered air travel is still in its infancy and has a way to go before it catches up with the power provided by aviation fuel.
It is probable that large aircraft flying long-haul flights will not be electrically powered any time soon. Even with projected technological improvements, there’s some doubt about whether this will happen at any time this century. This is due to the physical properties of the battery, namely energy density. A lithium-ion battery only produces a fiftieth of the power per kg that jet fuel produces at current power output.
A matter of weight
With this in mind, the raw power produced by batteries will not be powering today’s planes. However, this disparity is not insurmountable; electrically powered propulsion systems are getting more efficient – although they have some way to go on fossil fuel systems, which are currently 14 times more energy-rich than battery-powered alternatives. For example, to keep its current range, the plane would need batteries weighing 30 times more than its current fuel intake. This means that a trans-Atlantic jetliner would never get off the ground with current technology. And there’s another snag, as planes make their journey, they get progressively lighter; due to fuel being expended, a battery-powered plane will have the same weight taking off and landing. The need for batteries to get exponentially lighter before they become an effective means of powered flight is unmistakable.
Despite this battery power, specialists agree that there will be battery-powered travel over medium distances within our lifetimes.
For this to happen, batteries will have to be not only much safer but exponentially lighter. Heathrow to New York is unlikely to be battery-powered anytime soon unless the passenger wishes to cross the Atlantic on propeller power. The battery-powered long-haul jet engine is still a few years away.
Commercial flights by 2030?
With these weight induced limiting factors, aviation experts say the first commercially viable passenger planes will probably be hybrid and smaller. The Easyjet airline has partnered with aviation start-up Wright Electric to design and develop such a prototype plane that, if successful, could enter commercial service as early as 2030.
Easyjet envisages that these routes will be domestic or maybe even limited overseas – London to Brussells perhaps. But these shortish routes make up around 30% of aviation emissions. By initially introducing electric planes on these routes, a significant environmentally friendly impact can be made.
This technology can’t come soon enough for legislators as aviation is the only sector in the EU where emissions are significantly rising. Estimates show that at current increases, aviation’s emissions will go from the current 3% of global CO2 emissions to a staggering 24 % by 2050. If the airline industry is to survive, something will have to change.
While having a medium-sized commercial airliner in the next ten years is rather ambitious, realistic estimates of future air travel say that hybrid-electric aeroplanes are possible.
These new craft will have propulsion provided by conventional combustion engines working in tandem with battery-driven electric motors. Short-haul planes around the current 50-seater size are viewed as viable by 2030. However, this is a genuinely ambitious target, as industry experts say that 2030 will see hybrid aircraft of around 50 seats flying commercially.
The emerging battery-powered flight industry is indeed a sector to watch; with over 200 electrically powered aircraft under development and that number increasing yearly, a battery-powered flight to Paris is certainly a realistic option within the not so distant future.