Will electric planes have a future?

Will we be flying electric soon?

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Kallo, you are researching the topic of electric flying at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). When could we travel in electric planes?

Josef Kallo: That could take another 20 years or so. Electric flying is particularly worthwhile in the regional area, i.e. for distances between 250 and a maximum of 2000 kilometers, since electricity-powered aircraft currently only reach around 60 percent of the range of a kerosene-powered aircraft.

We are already in the process of building prototypes and will have to do more developments and certifications over the next ten to fifteen years. Electric flying is technologically feasible, even if the challenges are still great. Whether it will be implemented is primarily a question of cost.

  • Environmentally friendly flying? This is what electric planes of the future could look like

    Small, light and almost emission-free

    Aircraft fueled with electricity from renewable energy sources fly CO2-free. Other environmentally harmful emissions such as nitrogen oxides and fine dust would also be eliminated. All in all, electric aircraft have to be smaller, lighter and more efficient than kerosene-powered aircraft - such as the Alpha Electro from the Slovenian start-up Pipistrel, which has already taken to the skies.

  • Environmentally friendly flying? This is what electric planes of the future could look like

    Electric bus

    Electrically powered aircraft are to be used mainly in regional traffic. The Israeli start-up Eviation wants to revolutionize commuting with its 9-seater. The prototype Alice, which is due to make its first test flight in 2019, is expected to achieve speeds of up to 1000 km / h.

  • Environmentally friendly flying? This is what electric planes of the future could look like

    Up and away

    The flying taxi from the German company Lilium has already made its maiden flight. The jet took off for the first time in April 2017 - vertically. The fully electric 5-seater has a range of 300 km and takes an hour from London to Paris. The air taxis should at some point be able to be ordered via app and should not cost much more than a normal taxi ride.

  • Environmentally friendly flying? This is what electric planes of the future could look like

    Classic and electric mixed

    Some aircraft manufacturers, on the other hand, rely more on hybrids. Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens are jointly developing this prototype of a commercial aircraft. The so-called e-Fan X is operated with three gas turbines and an electric motor. At some point another gas turbine will be replaced by an electric motor. The first prototype is scheduled to make its first round in 2020.

  • Environmentally friendly flying? This is what electric planes of the future could look like

    Environmentally friendly on vacation

    The low-cost airline Easyjet also wants to enable climate-friendly flying. In September 2017, the British airline announced a cooperation with the American start-up Wright Electric. The aim is to build completely electrically powered planes for up to 150 passengers. It is not known when the first prototype will be ready.

  • Environmentally friendly flying? This is what electric planes of the future could look like

    Electric future

    According to experts, we could travel with the first electric aircraft in 20 years. Previous prototypes have a range of 250 to 1000 km. But technology is fast moving - good news for eco-conscious travel enthusiasts.

    Author: Katharina Wecker


How exactly could electric aircraft be used in regional transport?

It is conceivable to set up small hubs for "air buses" with ten to twelve seats, perhaps with 40 seats. Since electric aircraft need relatively short runways and are very quiet, they could be built near cities. Then it would be conceivable that you can book a trip with an app and decide whether you want to take the train or fly by air bus, or choose a combination of both.

In Germany you could use it to connect rural areas where local public transport is not well developed. In Baden-Württemberg, for example, it takes three hours to get from Aalen to Freiburg by train, including changing trains. You would be there in 45 minutes by plane.

More on this: The planes of tomorrow

Will we then fly with electric planes instead of taking the train?

Electric planes could mainly be used where there are still no good connections. They then serve as a quick extension of the infrastructure without us having to build train routes, highways, etc. That would be a concept for countries like China or India, for example, where one could relatively easily connect large areas with one another.

In addition, there will be more and more megacities where the question arises whether you can still act flexibly enough with buses and trains. Electrically powered aircraft would be particularly good at connecting people and places without exacerbating urban environmental problems.

For Josef Kallo, the regional transport of the future will take place in the air

How environmentally friendly would electric flying be? In today's air traffic, CO2 is responsible for only around half of all climate-damaging emissions. Nitrogen oxides, contrails, water vapor and fine dust have an additional warming effect.

Overall, electric aircraft would be 10% more efficient than conventional aircraft. The energy source, i.e. a battery with a fuel cell or a gas turbine with a generator, can be spatially separated from the electric motor.

This enables us to use the "drive actuator" [the motor that converts electricity into mechanical energy] can be placed flexibly, which increases the efficiency of the overall system. In other words, the energy that we have to use to fly would be less, and so would the emissions.

In addition, when using the fuel cell, no CO2, no benzene, no particles, no nitrogen oxides, etc. are generated. That would actually be more environmentally friendly in one fell swoop. Regarding contrails, we cannot make a statement at the moment. We still have to do more experiments.

In order for electric flying to be really environmentally friendly, the aircraft should not be "refueled" with electricity from coal-fired power stations or other fossil fuels. Would we have enough renewable energies available to fly with it?

In Germany, the market regulates that only as much energy is produced as is actually needed. One would first have to create capacities for the provision of energy in order to be able to implement electrical air traffic concepts.

Technically it would be possible. We see that there are places in Italy, Spain and the southwest of the USA where the yield from solar and wind is so good that capacities for electric flying - for example in the form of hydrogen electrolysis - could be made available there.

Aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus are also researching electric flight. Is there an exchange between science and business?

It is very welcome to aircraft OEMs [The industrial manufacturer of original components for aircraft] see what happens in this direction. From a technological point of view, we can say that if we have done our homework in two to three years, then we could do something together, maybe build a prototype.

Josef Kallo conducts research at the Institute for Technical Thermodynamics of the German Aerospace Center in Stuttgart. Since 2006 he has headed the "Electrochemical Systems" department, which deals with fuel cells and batteries.

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