- Batteries for electric planes are currently too heavy and have too little power
- Airbus’s E-Fan plane made a successful crossing of the English Channel in 2015
- Easyjet is working with Wright Electric to make a 186-seat hybrid-electric plan
Electric planes are touted as the future of air travel, allowing us to continue jetting off while protecting the planet. But how viable do they really look for mass commercial flight? Harry Wise takes a look.
As the worldwide airline industry remained grounded and the noise from Boeings in city skies gave way to the sound of birdsong, a piece of flight history was being made at a little-known airport in Washington State.
On May 28, a modified Cessna Caravan 208B, or eCaravan built by electric aircraft company MagniX and aerospace firm AeroTEC, flew in the air for 30 minutes above Moses Lake, Washington, after taking off from Grant County International Airport, in the US.
It was the largest ever flight by a commercial-style plane powered solely by electricity, one that its designers said was ‘a significant milestone in disrupting the transportation industry and accelerating the electric aviation revolution.’
Britain’s aviation industry is getting in on the act too. EasyJet has a partnership to develop electric planes and last week stuntman Andrew Dixon took off from Cranfield Airport in a six-seat Piper Malibu, the first-electric-powered flight of an aircraft capable of carrying passengers from a UK airport.
The eCaravan flew in the air for 30 minutes last month above Moses Lake . It was the largest ever commercial flight by a plane powered solely by electricity
Rather like the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903, the eCaravan’s half-hour adventure may have been a major accomplishment, but it showed just how rudimentary the technology for electric aircraft remains.
In a statement after the flight, MagniX’s CEO Roei Ganzarski only expressed his ambition that such ‘middle-mile aircraft’ would operate ‘from and to smaller airports.’ He made no mention of running long-haul flights.
It was only last year that the world’s first commercial all-electric passenger aircraft was launched. Israeli firm Eviation has created Alice – a prototype aeroplane whose creators claim is able carry nine people for up to 650 miles.
Electric aeroplane designers have to overcome severe stumbling blocks, especially with batteries. They are too heavy, they have too little power, and they only allow planes to travel short distances.
None of the planes in the test flights highlighted above could carry more than ten passengers and while the aviation industry believes it may realistically be able to get to a level where some private jets are electric within a decade, flying passengers en-masse remains a pipedream.
So holiday-goers who wish to travel to Marbella from Heathrow on their summer holiday, but do not want the guilt that comes from growing their carbon footprint, may have to wait decades before electric planes become mainstream.
Electric aeroplanes’ most marked problem is its batteries. They are too heavy, they only allow planes to travel short distances, and they have too little power
‘Even before COVID-19 it was simply impossible to say when electric aircraft will become an economically viable alternative to fossil fuel power,’ says Dr Duncan Walker, a reader in applied aerodynamics at Loughborough University.
Dr Walker says that at the moment, current battery technologies have insufficient energy density for short-haul flights.
As for long-distance flights, he believes that even in the next 50 years, there is unlikely to be a wholly electric-powered aircraft that can carry hundreds of passengers.
A big issue he states is R&D expenditure. Developing electric aircraft technology requires a lot of research and development spending. Despite all that is being done by the airline industry, Walker says the costs are too great for firms to ‘commit their future to such an unproven paradigm shift.’