Electric engines are a tantalizing prospect for the aviation industry, where fuel makes up more than half of an aircraft’s running costs. And being much quieter than conventional engines, they could allow planes to take off and land at night without breaking noise pollution rules. Since the scope for boosting the efficiency of classic, fossil-fuel engines is now approaching its limits, only electric and hybrid motors promise the kind of progress the industry needs to make. Hybrids could cut fuel consumption and emissions by around 50 percent.
There are major technological obstacles to purely electric flying machines: One kilogram of aviation fuel can store 20 times more energy than a modern lithium battery of the same weight. A fully-loaded Boeing 747 carrying 400 to 600 passengers would currently need 4.4 million laptop batteries to complete a long-haul flight. There’s also a range problem: batteries maintain their weight, whereas liquid fuel is burned off, lessening the load and increasing the distance an airplane can fly.
“Electric and hybrid-electric flight, and our aim of emissions-free flight, are among the biggest industrial challenges of our time,” said Thomas Enders, the chief executive of European plane builder Airbus.
Airbus formed a joint venture with industrial group Siemens in 2016 to make airborne electric mobility a reality in the coming decades. The two firms have each invested several hundred million euros and allocated a total of 200 staff to the project. Among the fruits of their labor is the Extra 330LE, a two-seat propeller plane with a Siemens electric motor, which recently set a new world speed record of 210 miles per hour. At this year’s Paris Air Show, the near-silent aircraft gave daily demonstrations but it can stay airborne for just 30 minutes. “We are convinced that by 2030 commercial aircraft with up to 100 passengers will be flying with hybrid motors,” said Mr. Enders.
Many manufacturers are working on electric and hybrid-electric motors. Airbus rival Boeing, along with US airline Jetblue, is backing Zunum Aero, a startup developing e-aircraft. Airbus is also a founding member of innovation center Bauhaus Luftfahrt, a German institute researching the future of air travel. Engineers there are working hard on the Ce-Liner, a dual-engine electric jet for 100 passengers. Earlier this year, US startup Wright Electric presented a completely electric aircraft and recently announced a collaboration with British budget airline Easyjet.
The key is to develop smaller and stronger batteries. On its record-breaking flight, the Extra 330LE achieved output of 5 kilowatts per kilogram. By comparison, the best electric cars currently produce around 2 kilowatts per kilogram. So there’s a long way to go. “It will take decades before batteries can achieve 1,000 watt-hours,” said Björn Fehrm of aviation news service Leeham News. Until they do, electric aircraft may be a strictly local phenomenon, he said.
Nevertheless, Siemens and Airbus are dead serious about their project. No one is prepared at this point to publicly estimate the potential market, but they are convinced it is a solid commercial bet. Their joint venture is already on the verge of commercialization. “We are making very good progress. For smaller planes, we’re in the last stages before going on the market,” Siemens project leader Frank Anton told Handelsblatt.
Mr. Anton, the leader of the electric aircraft project, is himself a trained pilot and stunt flyer. His involvement in e-planes goes back to 2008 when he had a conversation with Jean Botti, who was then the chief technical officer of Airbus, about the future of electric passenger aircraft. Mr. Anton took the chat seriously and developed a project proposal. When it was green-lighted by Siemens, he put together a team and developed the earliest battery-powered aircraft. “Everyday we make new discoveries here,” he says: “It’s like the discovery of America, but with everything very precisely planned.”
One of the project’s top engineers, Andreas Faas, previously worked in Silicon Valley for Tesla and Google before returning home to Germany to join what he called “a super-interesting, very serious project.”
Given the technological limits to electric power right now, hybrid technology seems the likely medium-term solution. But smaller aircraft powered by electric engines are on the brink of becoming reality. Scores of companies around the world, including ride-hailing service Uber, are working on electrical air taxis that might one day whizz passengers through the sky without pilots.
They include German startup Volocopter which is developing an electric helicopter that it tested a few days ago in Dubai. The Gulf emirate wants to start operating the first air taxis soon under a plan to shift a quarter of its passenger traffic to autonomous transport by 2030. Volocopter received additional funding of €25 million ($29.4 million) a few weeks ago to go into serial production. One of the investors is auto group Daimler, which now owns an 11 percent stake.
Another German firm, Munich-based Lilium, has develop a five-seat electric plane capable of vertical takeoff. Its vision is to develop a remote-controlled version and, ultimately, to build a plane so easy to fly that anyone can pilot it. And Chinese company Ehang is developing self-flying electric drones to transport passengers. The Ehang 184 has successfully completed its first test flight. So far, it’s only capable of transporting one guest weighing no more than 100 kilos. It can fly for 30 minutes and cover a distance of up to 50 kilometers.
Airbus is working on a project called Vahana, which is being developed by a new subsidiary called A3 that is working on mobility ideas for the future. “A hundred years ago city traffic disappeared underground, now we have the technical capabilities to bring it into the air,” said Mr. Enders, the Airbus CEO.
Axel Höpner is head of the Handelsblatt office in Munich, focusing on the state of Bavaria’s companies, including Allianz and Siemens. Jens Koenen leads Handelsblatt’s coverage of the aviation and space industry and writes about IT companies. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com