Kevin Devoto is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about travel and passenger experience in general. All opinions presented in this article are solely his and do not represent those of Aeronautics Online.
The answer to whether electric energy can power airplanes is both yes and no. Yes, successful electric powered airplanes have been built and tested, but no, the battery technology is not ready for commercial flights or private ones longer than a couple hundred meters. However, the future looks bright for zero emissions air travel because scientists are currently working on increasing battery technology and some estimates say that it will double in a year and be ten times more effective in a decade. So, what does the future look like for electric energy and how are those developments improving our chances of commercial electric flights in the next decade?
One of the biggest developments in electric energy is that more individuals and companies are moving to cleaner energy production methods. Installing solar panels on home, building solar farms and even creating siding options with hidden photoreceptors are keeping the construction industry on its toes, and batteries are improving every year. This makes it easier for utility companies to incorporate solar farms in their grids because they have more reliable backups. Homeowners in areas with frequent power outages are hiring a Tesla Powerwall installer for more compact and appealing battery backups and the solar panels to go with them. Offshore wind energy can be more easily harnessed each year and other renewables are also becoming cheaper than coal.
While an increased battery life and cordless charging options for your cell phone are convenient for you, they also represent jumps forward in technology that is translated into better batteries for small devices as well as for homes and vehicles. Energy density, or the amount of stored energy in a system, is increasing by between five and eight percent per year for batteries, and scientists are developing ways to harness energy from Wi-Fi signals or from the device ownerâ€™s movements so you may never need to charge your phone, internal medical devices or watch again. You can even find foldable or 3D printed batteries in the works.
One of the drawbacks of current battery technology is that it can be hazardous if not stored and cared for properly. If you have ordered a device with a lithium battery, for example, you know that it must be separate from the device with a rigid outer shell and non-conductive inner one to the package. This is because there is a risk of chemical burns, fires and electrical shocks from mishandled batteries. Installing the wrong batteries for your residential solar system can pose the same hazards and maybe even void parts of your insurance policy. Safer batteries are being developed for small devices without lithium or cobalt and with more stable forms of carbon, there are plans to scale these up for homes and vehicles after testing.
Chances are that the most improvements in electric energy technology will happen in private transportation vehicles before public ones like commercial aircraft or busses. While there are some examples of electric trains, those run on energy from the grid rather than independently generated electricity or battery storage. Electric and hybrid vehicles are becoming more efficient in terms of energy density and distance every year. Once considered the most expensive vehicles to own and operate, they are now being introduced in economy car classes and charging stations are popping up all over. Safer batteries with more density are developed every year and predictions hold that by 2030 you will only see hybrid or electric vehicles on the roads. Transparent solar panels and photoreceptors embedded in the paint can even help your car charge itself as you drive.
The biggest problem for electric powered aircraft is weight. Jet fuel gives more power for the same weight as a battery, making taking off and sustaining flight much easier. Hybrid aircraft, or ones which run on both jet fuel and electric energy, are the next step and companies investing in air taxi services are funding development in this area. A hybrid car is less expensive to drive because it gets more miles per gallon than a gasoline powered one and developing hybrid aircraft could make flying less expensive as well. There is also a need to make safer batteries or ones which fail without causing catastrophic fires in the air, so developments in that area can innovate more energy efficient aircraft. The future of electric energy aircraft looks bright, especially with technology growing at such an explosive rate. While you cannot go buy an electric flying car right now, you may be able to book a commercial flight on a hybrid aircraft or find an electric flying taxi in a couple of decades. Demand for residential solar panels, electric vehicles and more energy efficient small devices is fueling the development of safer batteries with better energy density, which are the key to electric energy powered aircraft.
Featured image courtesy of Wright Electric