In the French Alps last summer, a plane set seven new world records. The two-seater aircraft climbed more than 20,000 feet in under two minutes, and reached speeds of 142 miles per hour. It flew nonstop for 300 miles. Perhaps these numbers don’t sound very impressive. But consider that the aircraft burned no fuel and emitted zero emissions. Instead, the plane used an all-electric motor powered by a single battery.
Called the e-Genius and built by engineers at the University of Stuttgart, the most remarkable thing about this all-electric airplane is the cost of flying it. During a 62-mile stretch of its historic flight, the plane used about 25 kilowatts of electricity for a total energy cost of just over $3, according to its pilot, Klaus Ohlmann. In all, the e-Genius consumed just a fifth of the energy of a typical, fuel-powered two-seater airplane.
This plane is an emblem of things to come. In 20 years, you will most likely be able to buy a ticket for a flight on an electric airplane capable of commuting 100 passengers. “Today’s batteries allow us, with the most advanced car or the most advanced plane, a range of about 400 km,” explained Ohlmann. “In five years, we will have double [capacity]. In ten years, some scientists speak about ten times more capacity.”
Technological advances in electric-powered flight today will not only make the act of flying cheaper for you. Crucially, they also promise to revolutionize how the aeronautics industry impacts the global environment. Airplanes release around 500 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, representing a significant contribution to global warming. Electric flight replaces petrochemical consumption with cleaner, battery-powered electricity.
In the past 150 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen an estimated 35 percent, and humans went from being earth-bound to sending 3 billion passengers into the air each year. The Age of Flight has had an extraordinary carbon footprint. Consider that when a single person flies round-trip from New York to London, that travel generates approximately the same greenhouse gas emissions as heating a residential home for a year.
The International Civil Aviation Organization estimates that by 2050, aircraft-generated emissions are going to triple in volume. Governments that recognize the dangers are responding to these skyrocketing greenhouse gases by increasing industry regulations. As of 2012, the European Union has implemented a carbon-trading program among airlines that creates a marketplace for trading or buying allowances for CO2 emissions. Last year, the International Air Transport Association adopted a resolution calling on more governments to do the same.
In the United States, aircraft emissions are unregulated, and industry leaders as well as politicians have long fought participation in international emission-reduction schemes. But big changes are around the corner. This year, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it is going to study aircraft emissions to determine whether they are a risk to public health or the environment and potentially move to regulate them. Reducing emissions could be as simple as improving flight path efficiency and fuel burn. These two factors alone would result in carbon-neutral growth in America by 2020, and save 1.4 billion gallons of fuel.
But incremental improvements may not be enough. The very concept of a fossil-fuel-powered airplane needs to evolve if impacts on the environment are going to be fully mitigated to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
Companies such as Safran S.A., Boeing, Airbus, and Raytheon have already revealed plans to re-conceptualize the modern airplane. At Boeing, engineers have created the SUGAR Volt concept plane which combines electricity and fuel to power flight, much like a hybrid automobile does. Airbus recently unveiled a battery-powered aircraft called an E-Fan, which the company is hoping to sell in the recreational market by 2017, and eventually create commuter planes within 20 years. There is a lot at stake in the race to innovate: the electric aircraft market is projected to reach over $22 billion in the next fifteen years.
In order for electric flight to really take off and become mainstream in both commercial and recreational markets, it needs better batteries. Other industries have replaced traditional lead-acid batteries with lithium-ion batteries, which now power most of our laptops, phones, and electric cars. But in order to be aviation compatible, the next generation of batteries needs to deliver a whopping amount of power while being simultaneously smaller, safer, and lighter than lithium-ion ones.
Scientists like Dr. Qichao Hu are already working to solve this riddle. Hu’s invention, a polymer ionic liquid developed in a laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can make batteries that hold double the energy of the lithium-ion kind in your smartphone. “The main application was cellphones and electric vehicles,” said Hu of his invention. “But it turned out that aeronautics is an interesting application. If we can make the batteries lighter, then we can increase the energy savings and flying range of airplanes.”
Planes like the Taurus G4, made by Slovenian airplane manufacturer Pipistrel, have already proved that electric planes are not just green and cheap but can also perform better: Taurus needs less runway to take off and climbs faster than the same model that relies on fuel. And because electric planes are nearly silent, they have the potential to be flown and landed near dwellings and businesses. These facts mean that in a couple generations, teenagers could be getting a pilot’s license rather than a driver’s license and landing their small aircraft in a high school parking lot.
The world has already come a long way toward creating an era of environmentally smarter, battery-powered flight. Klaus Ohlmann’s flight in the e-Genius was five times as long as the first electric flight in 1973. Next year, pilots will fly an aircraft around the world that is powered by four electric motors and 11,000 solar cells on its wings. “E-mobility,” said Ohlmann, “starts now.”