Air travel may be one of humanity’s greatest achievements … and one of its messiest endeavors. Every time an airliner makes a round trip flight from New York to London, it generates as much carbon as an entire year’s worth of home heating. And by 2050, unless something changes, aircraft emissions will triple.
The problem is not just one of resources and pollution, it’s one of safety. Light aircraft today almost exclusively use reciprocating engine technology, the same as in your car and basically the same concept we have been using for more than a century. Reciprocating engines remain far too unreliable relative to jet propulsion – which has made the Cirrus series of singles and its ballistic parachute the most successful single engine aircraft today.
To this day we have not been able to come up with a better, more reliable, more efficient technology for General Aviation. This is largely due to the cost of investment and government regulations that counter innovation and new development. But demand for a reliable, safe, affordable, light aircraft propulsion system is limitless.
As governments consider changing regulations and investing in emissions reduction, aircraft makers are joining the auto industry in developing hybrid and electric vehicles.
They’re already further along than you might expect.
In 2011, engineers from the University of Stuttgart in Germany sent an all-electric two-seater plane on a nonstop 300-mile flight. No aircraft with human passengers had ever flown that far. And it wasn’t just successful, it was cheaper than regular air travel. The whole trip consumed only 20 percent of the energy that a traditional two-seater would have burned.
Not quite yet. We’re getting there, though, largely by way of hybrid planes. These Priuses of the air will, according to some experts, be able to take passengers on trips as long as 1,500 miles by 2035. But aviation has no intention of stopping there. Aviation company Wright Electric is working on small electric planes for regional air travel, a development that they hope will pave the way for 150-seat fuel-free aircraft. But the technology isn’t quite there yet.
What’s the Holdup?
We have electric cars, so why are electric planes so much harder?
Scientists say it’s all about battery density. At present, batteries only have about 2 percent of the energy contained in a similar volume of liquid fuel. That means that if you have 1,000 pounds of jet fuel and a battery of the same weight, the jet fuel will get you 14 times further.
It is getting better. Venkat Srinivasan of the Argonne National Laboratory says that the maximum energy density of batteries is increasing by 2 to 3 percent each year, a significant rate of improvement.
We don’t even need to get all the way to a one-to-one power match. If batteries can just get to 1,000 watt-hours per kilogram, a 500 percent increase, they could power a small commercial aircraft. Experts estimate that this will happen around 2045.
How Will We Get There?
Most scientists in the game think that new battery compositions will be the way forward. Srinivasan believes that lithium-metal will be the way to go, but it will all depend on what becomes practical enough to be scalable.
Meanwhile, research continues. In university and corporate laboratories, scientists who care about keeping humanity in the air and carbon out of it are working toward a win-win solution.
When will this breakthrough change our planet? that is the question we hope will be answered in our lifetime.
About True-Course Aviation Insurance: Established in 2009, True-Course Aviation Insurance provides risk management and insurance brokerage services to the world of aerospace. The company provides the highest possible level of value through process streamlining, account automation, and great customer service.
True-Course operates under the leadership of CEO Alejandro Galioto, an industry veteran with 20 years of aviation insurance experience and an avid aviator.