While the aviation industry attempts to clear our skies with zero-emission flights, there are some challenges electric planes need to overcome to transition to a carbon-free future.
As our planet’s skies continue to get clogged by air traffic, many aviation companies have turned to a cleaner, quieter and more sustainable way to travel: all-electric planes.
Global aviation, one of the largest polluters of our atmosphere, produces roughly 915 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
George E Bye, CEO of Bye Aerospace, began “to visualise the possibilities and understand the potential benefits of ‘green’ aviation about 20 years ago.”
“Electric aviation is significantly more efficient — an electric aeroplane could potentially reduce operating costs by 80 percent as compared to traditional, conventional and general aviation aircraft,” Bye told TRT World.
Bye, who has been an aviator his entire life, views the transition to electric aviation as “a slowly maturing change in technology” that the “industry needs and is, thankfully, embracing.”
The airline industry alone makes up around 2.1 percent of human-induced carbon dioxide emissions, transporting 4.5 billion passengers across the world in 2019, according to research from the non-governmental organisation Air Transport Action Group (ATAG).
Aviation, which makes up 12 percent of emissions from transportation sources, is striving to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and yet flights globally are expected to double in the next 20 years.
Change in technology
While other parts of the transportation industry have been pursuing cleaner forms of travel for decades, electric planes have lagged behind due to challenges with technology and governmental certification.
The most common tech struggle companies have faced is designing a light battery that produced enough power for a large plane’s electric motor over long distances — as batteries are less energy-dense than jet fuel.
In fact, powering a 737-size jet with electricity would require a battery the size of the plane itself, NASA’s Glenn Research Center told The Guardian.
“That’s just not feasible, it would be too heavy to take off, let alone fly,” said the centre’s manager of advanced air transport technology, Jim Heidmann. “Weight is quite a bit more important for planes than cars.”
But that hasn’t stopped big players from investing in electric flight alongside NASA, who created an experimental two-seater electric plane (the X-57) with an electric propulsion system.
Airline manufacturer Boeing estimates smaller electric or hybrid planes might be available sometime in the 2030s, Forbes reports.
But jumbo-jets, like its 777-sized planes, are still several decades away from flying with just electricity.
And to tackle the issue of batteries, Elon Musk claims batteries by his company Tesla “could achieve the needed power density for electric planes by 2023.”
In addition, companies are tackling the challenges behind battery-powered planes with hybrid models that use both jet fuel and batteries, such as LA-based start-up Ampaire.
Ampaire’s Electric EEL replaced the engine of a Cessna 337 Skymaster, saving 50-70 percent on fuel costs and 25-50 percent on maintenance, which could mean cheaper plane tickets for us all.
However, aside from tech issues, “the first and greatest limitation” for electric aircraft seems to be “bureaucracy,” Slovenian aircraft manufacturer Pipistrel told TRT World.
Pipistrel created one of the first all-electric aeroplanes in 2017 that has since become the first electric plane certified for use by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
The company’s Velis Electro aircraft is “type-certified in normal categories and it is already used for VIP commercial flights” the company’s public relations manager Taja Boscarol told TRT World.
“Before we opened the ‘Pandora’s box’ with the certification of the first electric motor and emission-free aircraft, which allows commercial use of clean aviation – this was not possible at all,” said Boscarol.
“EASA solved the issue of certification and operation for the electric aircraft as the first rule-maker in the world,” said Boscarol, but other authorities have yet to follow.
In the US, electric aircraft companies apply for certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which carries out certain checks before allowing electric aircrafts to operate, such as ensuring battery cells won't catch fire.
In 2017, the FAA amended its rules to allow electric propulsion systems in “aeroplanes weighing 19,000 pounds or less and with 19 or fewer passenger seats.”
“With these performance-based standards, the FAA delivers on its promise to implement forward-looking, flexible rules that encourage innovation,” the FAA said in a statement, highlighting the new part 23 certificate.
The certification allows companies to prepare their products for the global market, creating “regulatory harmonisation" among some of FAA’s foreign partners: the EASA, Transport Canada Civil Aviation, and Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Authority.
Bye Aerospace is among the many companies vying for global certification for its first electric aeroplane, the 2-seat “eFlyer 2.”
“We are in the early stages of a complete transformation in air travel that will take place over many decades,” Bye told TRT World. “Part of that early transformation is addressing the regulatory changes that must be approved and implemented.”
“These changes will take time, but they will absolutely be revolutionary. It is challenging but critically important for us to remain patient and vigilant,” he added.
They are anticipating the certification for the aircraft in approximately two years, with larger aircraft models to follow.
According to the company, the certification will pave the way for the aircraft to eliminate the release of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide each year for flight training alone.
Around 170 electric aeroplane projects are currently in the works, with most designed for private, corporate and commuter travel, according to Scientific American.
Alongside Bye Aerospace and Pipistrel, Airbus, MagniX, Zunum Aero and Eviation — which designed the world's first all-electric commuter aircraft Alice — are among other big names in the industry.
The world is eagerly gearing up for a greener aviation industry as companies continue to push for a commercial breakthrough – with hints of 100-passenger electric planes by Airbus on the rise.
“Every day, more civil aviation authorities all over the world are beginning to work on changing the rules and making emission-free flight legal. This is very optimistic,” said Pipistrel’s Boscarol.