Written by David Castellon
Just a few years ago, electric cars were a rarity, but these days Tesla’s are nearly common, with new, more affordable models on the way.
Meanwhile, other automotive companies scramble to stake out space in the growing electric car market.
Similarly, businesses and entrepreneurs around the world are looking to make similar strides in the development of electric and hybrid-powered airplanes, but the progress has been slower.
“The battery technology is the biggest hurdle to overcome,” as fossil fuels still deliver far more power than the batteries now available, said Brian Carpenter, co-owner of Rainbow Aviation, whose company in Corning is developing the EMG-6 electric motor glider.
So far, only one company has managed to begin mass production on an all-electric passenger aircraft, Slovenia’s Pipistrel, but its planes are small, single-engine models capable of staying in the air only about an hour with reserve power for another half hour.
That’s good enough for short hops or training flights, but the industry is far from having electric planes moving cargo for FedEx or ferrying Delta Airlines passengers between cities any time soon.
But better, more powerful batteries capable of powering larger planes over longer distances is the goal, and while it’s not likely to happen soon, that goal isn’t out of reach, Carpenter said.
Airbus and Boeing are among the established aircraft manufacturers working on this, while Germany’s Siemens is working to advance electric engine technology. And there are countless lesser-known ventures working toward similar goals of making electric-powered flight the norm.
And experts say development isn’t being driven just by the potentially cheaper costs of electric-powered flight, but also the environmental benefits of not burning fossil fuels to fly.
Even NASA is in the mix, having developed its own hybrid research plane equipped with 14 propellers — all or which are used during takeoff, while only two operate during regular flight — as part the agency’s 10-year program to create a new generation of aircraft using greener energy, half the fuel of current aircraft and generating less noise.
In addition, Carpenter said, electric engines tend to be less complex than fuel-burning models, making them easier to maintain and less likely to break down.
“All of the technology typically starts with the smaller aircraft first, and makes its way up to larger and larger aircraft,” he explained, and “big airplane stuff is in most everybody’s think tank” as they develop new electric motors and batteries.
Right now, “The energy in batteries just isn’t practical to use for long distance,” but there is progress being made for long-distance flights using hybrid engines that operate with both fuel and battery power.
In fact, Carpenter estimated that within 20 years some smaller commercial hybrid planes seating up to 30 passengers may be in U.S. skies, while half of the new smaller planes being manufactured may be electric.
And a December article in ARS Technica, a website covering technology and other issues, reported that some aviation analysts predict electric-powered passenger aircraft carrying up to 100 people on short-haul flights will happen by 2030. But Carpenter said any predictions of the next big advances in electric flight are shaky at best because battery technology is progressing so fast that game-changing advances could come far faster than anticipated.