Although Electric Planes may seem futuristic, they aren’t far away, at least not for short trips.
Two-seater Velis Electros have been quietly flying around Europe. Electric sea plans are currently being tested in British Columbia. Larger planes are on the way. Air Canada said on September 15, 2022, that it would purchase 30 electric-hybrid regional planes from Sweden's Heart Aerospace. It expects to have the 30-seat plane in operation by 2028. The U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab has noted that the first hybrid, electric 50-to-70-seat commuter aircraft could be available soon. They believe that electric aviation will take off in the 2030s.
This is important for climate change management. Today, about 3% of global carbon emissions are from aviation. With more people flying and passengers expected to increase, aviation could produce three-five times as many carbon emissions by 2050 than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Assistant professor Gokcin Cinar, an aerospace engineer, develops sustainable aviation concepts at the University of Michigan, including hybrid-electric planes as well as hydrogen fuel options. We spoke to her about how aviation can be cut and where technology like hydrogen and electrification is headed. The most difficult vehicle to electrify is an aircraft, and the battery weight is the biggest challenge.
To fully electrify a Boeing 737 using today's batteries you would need to remove all passengers and cargo, and then fill the space with batteries to fly for less than an hour.
Compared to batteries, jet fuel can retain around 50 times more energy per unit mass. So, your options are 50 pounds of batteries or 1 pound of jet fuel. We need to either make lithium-ion batteries lighter or create new batteries with higher energy densities in order to close that gap. Although new batteries are being created, they are not yet prepared for use in aircraft.