Electric planes prepare to takeoff
If you are a fan of electric cars, get ready. Electric planes could be coming soon to the commercial market.
Zunum Aero, a startup based in Bothell, Wash., is designing a hybrid electric, 10-to-12-passenger plane it hopes can be used for commercial flights early in the next decade. Such an aircraft would produce fewer emissions than a conventional model and cost less to operate, according to Waleed Said, power chief technology officer.
“We are laser-focused on doing a flight test,” said Said, who is working on the plane’s powertrain at the company’s Elgin, Ill., facility. A test is planned for next year.
Zunum has to overcome two major challenges before a plane is ready for commercial use. The main technical problem is the weight of the battery, which has to be both light enough for the plane to get off the ground and powerful enough to fly it. The other hurdle is getting the plane certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Zunum believes it can overcome both hurdles and fill a need for 500- to 700-mile trips.
Said explained that most people who need to travel about 500 miles choose to drive, but might fly instead if flights were convenient and cheap enough. Airlines have cut back on short-haul flights because they cost too much. Hybrid electric planes would be cheaper to operate than jet-fueled, conventional planes because of lower costs for fuel and maintenance, Said said. They also could use small, regional airports, rather than big, crowded, time-consuming centers like O’Hare or LAX.
“It’s democratizing travel by having airports closer to where people live and work,” said Said, noting that there are thousands of small U.S. airports.
There are already small electric planes, primarily one- and two-seaters that travel short distances. The German company Siemens is collaborating with Airbus and other partners on electric battery-powered flight. Siemens suffered a setback in May after the Magnus “eFusion” plane with a Siemens electric propulsion unit crashed in Hungary, killing both pilot and passenger.
Zunum wants to leapfrog over two-seaters and go straight to a 12-seat plane for its hybrid electric system, according to Said.
The company plans to test the power system using an existing airplane with two engines. The plan is to take one engine out and replace it with a hybrid electric engine.
“We’re going to try and fly it and learn from it . . .and use the results in the design of the airplane,” Said said.
The hybrid system uses both a generator, powered by jet fuel, and an electric battery. The generator would be used during takeoff, and then the plane could operate with just the battery, he said.
The plane itself is being designed at Zunum’s Washington headquarters, while the powertrain is being developed in Elgin and the propeller in Indianapolis, Said said. Founded in 2013, Zunum is funded by Boeing HorizonX, JetBlue Technology Ventures and the state of Washington Clean Energy Fund.
Zunum is not the only company working on commercial-size electric planes. MagniX, based in Redmond, Wash., is developing an all-electric propulsion system for a 10-or-more passenger aircraft. CEO Roei Ganzarski said the company, which sees itself as in a race with Siemens, wants to be ready to fly by August 2019, and able to do up to 250 miles in 18 months. All-electric planes, like all-electric cars, would offer less range than a hybrid.
Like Zunum, MagniX also sees its planes being used at small, regional airports. Ganzarski sees markets in both package delivery and passenger service.
“There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm around electric propulsion,” he said.
Seth Kaplan, managing editor of the industry magazine Airline Weekly, said that while using electric engines would save money on fuel, airlines still have to pay a pilot, and that cost would have to be spread among 10 passengers on a small plane, rather than 100 or more. “That’s generally why airlines like larger planes,” Kaplan said.
However, Kaplan noted that governments interested in the environmental benefits of electric planes might incentivize them, the way electric cars are incentivized through tax breaks. There are also commercial airlines that specialize in smaller aircraft that would be interested in an electric or hybrid electric plane as long as the cost made sense, he said.
“It’s unlikely to be competitive with much larger aircraft, but if you can reduce the fuel cost, it could be competitive with slightly larger aircraft,” Kaplan said.
JetSuite, an Irvine, Calif.-based private jet charter company, announced in May that it would be Zunum’s first customer.
Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University, said there are a number of markets that could support short-hop regional service if operating costs were cut by 20 to 30 percent and “a battery-powered plane could do that.”
Market potential aside, companies first have to get the planes flying, and reducing the battery weight is a significant challenge, said Kiruba Haran, an associate professor of engineering and one of the founders of Zunum, who left the company to continue his research at the University of Illinois.
“Getting them lightweight and safe are the biggest roadblocks,” Haran said. He said the electrification of aviation is in the “very early stages.”
“All it takes is a couple of them to burn up, then the whole industry slows down for 10 years,” Haran said.
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