Electric air travel is a thing, but it’s also about 30 years away

By Yair Oded

Published Nov 23, 2018 at 03:07 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

As the global village tightens, the frequency of our air travel spikes. For many millennials, London, Paris, New York, Tel Aviv, and Sydney have morphed into an extension of one another. With cheap flights increasingly available, what’s to stop us from engaging in constant air travel?

Unfortunately, our flying extravaganza is exacerbating the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere at a terrifying rate. Situated at altitudes sufficient to shove its plumes of burned fuel right into the atmosphere, airplane transportation currently accounts for nearly 3 percent of all global emissions annually. Doesn’t sound too crazy? Well, according to the EU, the share of international aviation in the global emissions pie will rise to 22 percent by 2050 if we keep thinking that hopping to Berlin for a night at Berghain or spending that extra weekend in Greece bears no consequence on the environment.

Extensive research has taken place in order to figure out a way to replace fuel-burning airplanes with eco-friendly electric ones. Among those who are dead serious about developing a greener alternative to our polluting planes is Airbus, who at the 2018 Farnborough Airshow flaunted its E-Fan X initiative, also referred to as “the next step in Airbus’ electrification journey.” The project, which is done in collaboration with Siemens and Rolls-Royce, seeks to develop a flight demonstrator testing a 2MW hybrid-electric propulsion system. On its website, Airbus declare that the company believes “electric and hybrid-electric propulsion will help the aviation industry meet the goals set out in the Flightpath 2050 Vision for Aviation, which aims to significantly reduce CO2 emissions and noise levels.” The U.K. government has thrown its support behind the project, pledging to allocate to it a portion of the £255 million it plans to invest in eco-friendly aviation technologies.

The ever controversial Elon Musk has also toyed with the idea of developing an electric aircraft, one that would be “capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and supersonic flight at high altitudes.” In a fun-sponge move, though, Musk conceded that this is not a top priority for him, as he wishes to spend his effort on further developing electric cars, solar energy, and stationary storage of energy (not bad news for the environment, but a buzz-kill nonetheless for those of us eager to maintain our travelling habits with a clear conscience).

An interesting and promising development, however, emerged from an MIT lab where researchers have managed to fly a silent ‘ion drive’ powered by charged air. Throughout the demonstration, the scientists have utilised high powered electrodes in order to ionise and accelerate air particles and forge what they refer to as an ‘ionic wind’. This ionic wind enabled them to fly a five-meter wide device across a 66-yard sports hall. According to the researchers, “unlike the ion drives which have powered spacecraft for decades, this new drive uses air as its accelerant.”

While the MIT team certainly reached a breakthrough, their discovery is far from constituting a guarantee that electric passenger aircrafts will fill the sky anytime soon. The greatest challenge for all green aircraft manufacturers remains battery technology. Presently, no available battery is even close to providing the weight-to-power ratio required to fly an airplane full of people across the sky and against the gravity of the planet. The gulf between us and the coveted battery technology only widens now due to rivalries between corporations trying to guard their ‘secret’ electric aviation technologies and scientists at universities who perform their experiments in a more open environment. The lack of cooperation between the two thus significantly delays any progress in the field.

Some researchers are hopeful, though, indicating that development in the electric car industry will ultimately lead to the creation of a battery capable of flying an aircraft across the ocean. “All things start to converge at some point. Autonomous vehicle technology, electric vehicles, drone development, and electric aviation will all enable each other, and may be pushing these technologies along faster than anybody realizes,” says Don Hillebrand, director of the Argonne’s Center for Transportation Research, in an interview for Wired.

All factors considered, electric aircrafts still remain an asset of the future, as scientists predict no significant breakthrough in this sphere can be expected to occur before 2045 (by which point we will have passed the 12-year deadline to seriously get our act together and significantly reduce CO2 emissions). And so, in the meantime, let us reconsider our travelling habits and contemplate whether we can cut back on a few excursions abroad in the coming years.

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