Six years ago a sun-powered emissions free aircraft called Solar Impulse, captivated our imagination by crossing the Pacific Ocean. That same year Airbus Group and its partners, unveiled the electric E-Fan training aircraft. However, it would take another five years for a test flight of an electric commercial carrier. In 2019, Canadian company Harbour Air and electric motor startup Magnix made history with their all electric converted 6 passenger de Havilland DHC-2 beaver seaplane. Recently MagniX conducted a successful test flight of a larger plane in Washington state.
The modified Cessna Grand Caravan 208B which has been dubbed “eCaravan” was powered by a 750hp electric motor and has a range of 100 miles. It flew for 30 minutes at a cruising speed of 114 mph (183 km/h). However, it is far from ready to go into service. The cabin was filled 2 tons of lithium-ion batteries as well as cooling equipment which leaves no room for passengers. Although much work still needs to be done, MagniX is hopeful its engines will enter commercial service as early as 2022.
There is a powerful business logic driving the development of zero emissions electric planes. In addition to being emissions free, they require less maintenance and are cheaper to operate. As reporting by the Guardian, the CEO of MagniX Roei Ganzarski, said electric planes are 40-70 percent cheaper per hour of flight operations.
The pursuit of electric aviation is advancing as companies race to find alternatives to reduce the footprint of traditional air travel. Harbour Air and Norwegian aviation company OSM Aviation Academy are both committed to fully electrifying their fleets of planes.
In June, Pipestrel’s battery-powered Velis Electro aircraft has become the world’s first electric airplane to be awarded type certification by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Certification is an important first step in the march towards commercial aviation. However, the two-seat plane is limited to 50 minutes of flying time with a top speed of 100 mph (181 km/h).
Larger and faster electric airplanes are also being developed. U.S. based Zunum Aero is building a 27-seat electric plane with a 680-mile (1094 kms) range and a maximum cruise speed of 340 mph.
UK based Rolls-Royce is working on the fastest all-electric plane and German company Lilium is working on a five-seat jet-powered electric air taxi.
Although there is growing interest in hybrid electric/fossil fuel powered aircraft there have been some major setbacks in 2020 that have undermined the prospects for this approach. Despite the successful test flight of Ampaire, a high profile hybrid electric plane joint venture between Rolls-Royce and Airbus was cancelled this year. Other power sources currently being tested include hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels.
Airships Offer Both Climate Mitigation and Adaptation and may be ideal for transport but they are far too slow to be a viable means of passenger transport. It is important to understand that electric flight is no easy feat. Before we can have long distance electric air travel we will need to see major breakthroughs in propulsion and in battery energy density. Batteries will specifically need to get smaller and lighter. However, there are promising signs that suggest advances in battery technology will make commercial electric aviation a reality.
As part of its megawatt engine program, US firm Wright Electric is developing a 1.5MW electric motor and a 3kV inverter intended to provide propulsion for a 186-seat 300nm electric airliner. Along with its partner UK budget carrier EasyJet they plan to conduct ground tests in 2021, and flight tests in 2023. With entry into service scheduled for 2030.
Despite technological hurdles that remain to be overcome, electric airlines are the future. MagniX believes that all flights of less than 1,000 miles (1610 kms) will be completely electric in 15 years.