Since the inception of aviation in the early 20th century, the industry has relied strictly upon fossil fuels as a substrate for propulsion. While aircraft have adopted more fuel-efficient designs over the years, and engine technology has improved immensely, aviation still accounts for a non-negligible amount of CO2 produced each year. These carbon emissions are damaging to the environment, and with many countries creating a regulatory setting that favors green energy, it may become very costly for airlines to continue to operate in such a manner. One solution that is gaining popularity which boasts academic and commercial interest is electrification, which aims to replace longstanding fossil-fuel-driven engines with fully electric models. In this blog, we will discuss the push toward electrification in aviation and the challenges associated with its implementation.
Electric propulsion systems are incredibly efficient and can support much longer flight distances, given their power source is sufficiently full. As such, it may seem intuitive to simply store a large battery on the aircraft to pull from. However, with current battery density, it is difficult for most units to support the high demand associated with electric propulsion. One design that may overcome the high energy demands of the electric engine is the turbo-electric model, which uses a gas turbine to generate the power needed. Another solution is the series hybrid architecture which uses a gas turbine and alternator to power a battery, that of which subsequently discharges as necessary to the various electrically-driven engines. Finally, the all-electric model uses large, rechargeable batteries to fuel the flight. Many aircraft elements already require electricity, and are driven by the alternator, but can occasionally utilize the APU. An ideal system would implement this longstanding technology to renew energy stores during flight.
While the first electric propulsion system was invented over 40 years ago, technology limitations and lack of industry motivation have essentially curtailed related projects until recently. Besides the evident benefit of exponentially reducing the carbon footprint, there are several other advantages of switching to electric propulsion. First, electric motors are nearly silent, particularly when compared to conventional turbine engines. This allows airlines more takeoff options, as many locations globally regulate noise pollution caused by air traffic. Military aviators may also benefit from noise reduction, allowing for increased stealth and mobility. Additionally, thanks to the booming electric car industry, battery density technology has continued to develop at an accelerated pace.
The most significant hurdle to overcome with electrification is the enormous energy requirements placed upon the batteries. For example, in order to power a Boeing 777 for a long-haul flight, the battery capacity would need to deliver an outstanding 23 Megawatts/hours of power. Unfortunately, with current battery technology, such an endeavor is not in the realm of possibility. Further, electric propulsion systems take a significant amount of time to charge, which would delay flights and cost the airlines money in downtime. They also require a robust charging network involving specialized infrastructure at every airport that might support electric planes. However, with proper funding and support, electrification is likely to take over a large chunk of the aviation market in the next 20 years.
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