The invention of the jet engine made air travel a mass phenomenon. But as the industry continues to grow, aviation experts are now trying to find ways to make flights quieter, more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Many say that the future of flight will be electric, including Airbus and Siemens, which have now teamed up in an effort to make it a reality.
“We believe that electric flight is possible,” said Siemens head Joe Kaeser. “And if it is possible, then Airbus and Siemens will develop the system.”
The multinational aviation company and German industrial giant want to invest a three-figure sum over the next five years to be part of this “paradigm shift.” Their efforts will be led by some 200 specialists stationed in Ottobrunn, a small town near Munich, where they will explore the feasibility of electrically-powered flight.
“We believe that electric flight is possible. And if it is possible, then Airbus and Siemens will develop the system.”
“We are giving it everything,” said Airbus head Tom Enders when the foundation stone was laid at the new building on Thursday.
Their goal is to develop a hybrid electric aircraft that can carry up to 100 passengers by 2030.
It’s a cooperation driven by a need to satisfy rising demand for climate protection and noise reduction even as air traffic doubles every 20 years.
For some time now, the industry has been probing fuel alternatives. Natural fuel made from algae could improve the climate footprint, for example. Meanwhile, suppliers like Safran develop electric motors which can drive planes down the runway without using turbines. As part of a new scheme underway at Frankfurt’s airport, planes are towed by diesel-electric vehicles to the runway.
But the key change will be gradually altering the plane’s turbine drive to run on electrical propulsion. Airbus has already showed that this is possible with its E-fan, an electric plane unveiled in 2014 that can transport up to four people, and has already crossed the English Channel.
In addition to its new cooperation with Siemens, Airbus is among the members of the “Bauhaus Luftfahrt” association, alongside the engine manufacturer MTU and machinery firm Liebherr. In 2012, it presented the Ce-Liner and a concept study for an electrically propelled short-haul jet for 190 passengers.
But the technical developments are not yet up to the challenge of creating an electric passenger aircraft for standard use. To do so, the electric motors would have to be improved five-fold, according to Frank Anton, who heads Siemens’ electric flying project.
Meanwhile, battery capacity remains too small to enable a plane to travel longer distances powered only by electricity. Furthermore, air transport must adhere to an extremely strict certification process. The researchers at “Bauhaus Luftfahrt” are eyeing the years between 2035 and 2040 as a possible market launch date for their Ce-Liners.
Until then, the engineers will continue to focus on hybrid engines, as happened with the early development of electric cars. In the case of planes, a conventional turbine will generate the energy for a propeller drive and numerous other electrically-propelled features of the aircraft.
To do so, the plane’s voltage will rise from 270 today to more than 1,000, said Martin Nuesseler, who works at Airbus. But one thing is clear: Such a machine will be far removed from today’s approach to building planes.
Regardless of the hurdles, Airbus chief Mr. Enders and Siemens chief Mr. Kaeser are determined to conquer this new territory. Siemens has a niche in making electric motors for industry and trains, although it missed a beat on the e-car business. With electric flight, Siemens has a long-term chance to gain a strategic edge over its big rival General Electric, currently the leading producer of conventional engines for passenger jets.
Markus Fasse covers the aviation and automobile industry. Axel Höpner is the head of Handelsblatt’s Munich office, focusing in particular on Allianz and Siemens. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com