We are in a new age for energy use. Applications for diverse sources of energy are reaching and crossing the boundaries of what we once thought possible. New technological realities are yesterday’s science fiction. The future is now.
For example, one new technology may even change the way we fly.
Unlike other ideas in the sector, this one is already operational and combines some interesting aeronautical approaches with a positive environmental impact.
The aviation industry is one of the largest sources of pollutant greenhouse gas emissions. With every flight, carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and other noxious gases and particles are released into the atmosphere.
Engineers have been working to solve this problem and reduce this growing form of transport’s carbon footprint.
They’ve recently unveiled a revolutionary new kind of plane.
This development is called the E-Fan. And it’s electric.
Here’s how this new plane could change the energy game…
A 100% Electric Plane
Here’s what the E-Fan looks like:
I admit that even a veteran flyer like myself is not going to be taking this cross country anytime soon. But it is likely to have an impact on the industry.
Yesterday, Tim Maverick of Wall Street Daily referred to the E-Fan as the “Tesla of the skies.” As he wrote:
There are several inventors and companies in various countries working on the concept. But the most prominent name is Airbus Group (OTC:EADSY). It’s investing $22 million into a project that will develop electric planes.
The E-Fan relies solely on lithium-ion batteries to power its two 30-kilowatt electric motors. The two-seater plane has a 31-foot wingspan, measures 22 feet long, and weighs 1,100 pounds with no passengers. Cruising speed is 100 mph. When accelerating or taxiing, a 6-kilowatt electric motor in the main wheel kicks in to provide extra power.
According to Airbus, the E-Fan has now completed 100 flights. In total, the project took 18 months from paper to its first flight, which occurred in March 2014.
The plane isn’t just for airshow demonstrations. On July 10, it successfully crossed the English Channel.
Harnessing Hybrid Technology for Flight
According to Airbus, the Channel crossing and the E-Fan’s other long-distance flights have been made possible due to some recent leaps in electric power technology.
The main advance is the increase in lithium-ion battery efficiency. These batteries can now store more than 60% electricity. This means an electric-only plane can stay in the sky 60% longer – for over 55 minutes.
By 2017, Airbus intends to launch its E-Fan 2.0 for basic pilot training, and by 2019 the E-Fan 4.0, which will seat four and have a gas-powered range extender.
For the future, Airbus envisions a hybrid version of the E-Fan that would combine electric power with biofuel-powered motors. In this version, once the plane’s lithium-ion batteries have been drained, the motors would kick in to recharge its power cells.
Airbus intends to have a 100-passenger electric hybrid plane operational by 2030, with a flight range of at least three hours.
Other Entries to the Zero-Emission Flight Game
Of course, Airbus isn’t the only aviation company working on harnessing alternative energy technology to flight. And this will open up other possibilities for profit opportunities.
The other airplane superpower, Boeing (NYSE:BA), is working on its own electric plane in partnership with Cambridge University. They’ve developed a one-seater airplane using a hybrid electric propulsion system. An electric motor/generator is supported by an internal combustion engine. The plane can fly using the engine or electric motor, or both in combination. Boeing expects to have a commercially viable version available by mid-century.
And a privately financed Swiss solar-powered aircraft project, Solar Impulse, aims to complete the first circumnavigation of the globe by a piloted fixed-wing aircraft using only solar power. In 2014, one of its single-seat planes crossed the United States successfully. And recently the Solar Impulse 2 made the longest-ever solar-powered flight, nonstop from Japan to Hawaii.
But are these renewables-powered aircraft the future of flight?
The New Way to Fly
As Tim Maverick says, “The answer most likely is ‘yes’,” and I agree with him. As he says:
The technology starts with inherent advantages. Electric motors may weigh the same as turbine engines, but are 2.5 times more efficient at converting stored energy into mechanical power. And they’re up to six times more efficient than conventional piston engines.
Needless to say, there’s a very long way to go before a viable electric plane becomes a commercial reality. But the aviation industry’s biggest names wouldn’t be working on the concept if they didn’t think it was realistic.
With electric plane technology specifically, though, the bottom line is that it will advance as fast as Elon Musk and others can push forward new battery technologies. This is happening as we speak – and at the current rate of progress, there’s a good chance that our future will feature all-electric planes that are as commonplace as conventional jet engine-fueled planes are today.
We are going to be hearing a lot more about electric battery and solar-powered aviation moving forward, especially if the impetus to begin using the new planes in regional passenger traffic start to take off.
Advances in these technologies will also have knock-on effects on the rest of the energy sector. I will keep you updated as these exciting and radical technologies develop.
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