Since the beginning of aviation, planes have primarily been powered by carbon-based fuels such as gasoline or kerosene. These contain a lot of energy for their weight, providing the vast power required to lift large commercial airliners on journeys across the globe without putting on much weight on the aircraft. But with declining oil resources and its increasing penalties on greenhouse gas emissions, it was really important to find other alternatives. Here comes the concept of Electrical Aircraft. When I’m talking of Electrical Aircraft, I mean commercial flights powered by electric engines.
In 2016, the first aircraft powered solely by the sun – Solar Impulse 2 made its landing into history, reaching Abu Dhabi and completing a 25,000 mile, round-the-world journey that began over a year ago. With this milestone the dream of making Electrical Aircraft seemed possible. Since then many experts are working on making this type of aviation ‘dream’ into reality.
There is still a long way to go before our commercial flights are powered by electric engines. For comparision, the fastest electrical aircraft – Long ESA has traveled at a speed of 220 mph, and carried a single passenger whereas Boeing 787, which flies at 585 mph, and carries more than 242 passengers.
Battery storage is the key limiting factor for electric aircraft. If electric aircraft are held back by either weight or fuel restrictions, it’s probably down to the battery. Another challenge is thermal management. Creating a cooling system that can reject anywhere from 50 to 800 kW of heat in flight is another challenge in making such aircraft.
Currently there are many companies and startups which aim to build electric powered aircraft that can be used for commercial purposes. Airbus is currently working on E-Fan X based on Airbus E-Fan, a prototype two-seater electric aircraft which uses on-board lithium-ion batteries to power two electric motors. The E-Fan has an endurance of 60 minutes. Their aim is to create a hybrid electric model capable of flying in 2020, and further developing it to an all-electric plane.
With the current pace it seems that within the next decade, this technology may extend to short-range commuter and business aircraft, if not a full fledged commercial aircraft. Safety and reliability are another issues which need to be addressed even if an electrical aircraft is developed.
In conclusion, we need to wait about 20-30 years more to see electrical aircrafts in reality as there is still a very long way to go in developing the technology required to make one.
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