With environmental concerns and climate change always on the agenda, people have talked about how the aviation industry can adapt to protect the environment – one possibility is electric flight. Now, one year from COP26 when governments around the world were discussing how to reduce climate change, there are many possibilities in discussion.

Possible solutions to the problems caused by the aviation industry which have already been discussed include using more environmentally friendly fuels that have lower carbon dioxide emissions and making planes more fuel-efficient. However, is there a way to reduce carbon emissions to zero?

The UK

Electric planes provide this opportunity; but how far has research progressed? And are we nearer to that possibility? The good news is, yes.

In November 2021 an all-electric aircraft, called The Spirit of Innovation – built by Rolls Royce, was successfully flown at the UK’s Ministry of Defence testing site in Wiltshire. It beat two existing records in terms of its speed. The aircraft’s average speed over 3 km was 555.9 km per hour (345.4 miles per hour). This broke the existing speed record by 213.04 km per hour (132 miles per hour).

Flag showing Rolls Royce electric
Rolls Royce has successfully flown an electric plane © Derby Telegraph

It also beat the current world record over 15km; the aircraft’s average speed was 532.2 km per hour (330 miles per hour). This record speed was faster than the previous one by292.8 km per hour (182 miles per hour). According to the BBC, the maximum speed reached was 623 km per hour (387.4 miles per hour) which made it the fastest electrical vehicle ever produced. However, this was not part of the official record submission to the World Air Sports Federation which was the organisation certifying the record.

The scheme that produced this plane is part of the UK Government-backed ACCEL or “Accelerating the Electrification of Flight” project. As one can see the UK government is all for making electric flight possible. However, the plane involved only had enough space for a seat for the pilot. Because of this, the UK government has some way to go before electric planes become a commercial reality.

Other Countries

However, it does appear that other countries have also been researching and developing electric aircraft. Israeli company Eviation has already developed the world’s first electric passenger flight, which it has named Alice. It has yet to be tested though so strictly speaking it has not yet been shown to be successful. However, according to CEO Omer Bart-Mohay, Alice will be ready for flight soon.

Alice offers more scope for the future of passenger planes as it is a nine-passenger flight. With battery technology similar to an electric car or mobile phone and 30 minutes of charging, it can fly for one hour and approximately 440 nautical miles. The plane has a cruise speed of 287 miles per hour when compared to a Boeing 737 which has a maximum cruise speed of 588 miles per hour.

So clearly more development needs to take place before optimum journey times occur. However, the company is confident that electric passenger planes that can fit between 20 to 40 passengers will be a reality in 7 to 10 years’ time.

The electric aviation industry is getting more crowded as more companies and countries seek to improve their carbon footprint. The companies getting involved are both start-ups as well as established companies. According to CNN, NASA gave 253 million US dollars in September 2021 to GE Aviation and magniX to bring the technology to US fleets by 2035. Boeing is investing 450 million US dollars in Wisk Aero, a company building an all-electric autonomous passenger aircraft. Airbus has also been working on electric aviation research since 2010.

NASA emblem electric plane
NASA is funding research into electric planes © Wikimedia

As one can see electric aviation research and development is taking off and many companies from around the world are working to develop electric passenger planes. So far, however, whilst electric planes have been successfully flown, there has not yet been a successful passenger flight. We have to wait to see how this develops. However, progress has been made and there continue to be more advances in this area.

 

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