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How Can Electricity be Used to Power Aircraft?

As several industries move toward electronification, particularly in regard to vehicles, aerospace engineers have also begun to consider the steps necessary to create an electronic aircraft. There are several benefits to electronification, including reducing operating costs and decreasing the industry's aggregate CO2 emissions, which have remained high despite numerous leaps in technology. There have also been many factors impeding the creation of an electric or hybrid power source. Notwithstanding, aerospace companies have made incredible strides in technology over the past decade, with some beginning to implement hybrid engines in test aircraft. In this blog, we will discuss the limitations and current status of the electronification movement in aviation.     

Before discussing hybrid and electronic power capabilities, it is first necessary to understand the background of why this technology was previously thought impossible. The most obvious reason is the additional mass that comes along with an electric motor. In an automobile, the added weight from installing an electric motor is compensated for by the extra energy stored by the battery. Nevertheless, aircraft have always been more sensitive to changes in weight, requiring much more energy for every kilogram added. Another limiting factor is the distance that aircraft must travel. The fossil fuels currently used in aviation yield very predictable distances and have reconcilable weight, which also decreases during the duration of the flight. In 2022, battery technology is not advanced enough to deliver the enormous amount of power needed to fly a jetliner across the country.   

In 2016, a National Academies study suggested that an all-electric commercial aircraft would likely not be available until mid-century. However, increased research and development funding, as well as cross-industry collaboration, may quicken the development. In terms of cost savings, airlines would be treated to an exponential decrease in the price of fuel and maintenance. Currently, gasoline motors will require maintenance and overhaul ten times more frequently than their electric equivalents. However, these savings would come at the enormous expense of retrofitting and installing the new motors.   

The first place where electric aircraft could be implemented is on shorter routes since distance is the primary limiting factor. Usually, short routes are underutilized and therefore subsidized by the government. If airlines were able to service these routes with greater efficiency, the government could also save millions of dollars per year. Additionally, the military is likely to have a vested interest in electronification since an electric motor would enable near-silent flight. 

One viable electronification modality that is likely to see implementation in the near future is the hybrid engine. These devices have primarily found use on VTOL aircraft as well as helicopters since these are generally smaller and demand less energy consumption. Several corporations, including Honeywell and Rolls Royce, are already developing hybrid architectures, which use gas turbines and alternators to power a battery. This battery subsequently discharges as necessary to the various electrically-driven engines. A similar design is a turbo-electric model, which implements a gas-powered turbine to create the required energy for the electric motors.   

Current electric aircraft implement either batteries or fuel cells as forms of power storage. Batteries have much higher storage capacity than fuel cells, but they also carry the downside of weighing much more. Lithium polymer batteries have been a staple choice for unmanned aerial vehicles that employ electric propulsion. However, they would be impractical at the sizes needed to support cargo or commuter aircraft due to their energy density. As a result, the small number of fully electric aircraft being tested have been equipped with high-performance lithium-ion batteries. Fuel cells rely upon a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity. Theoretically, this power storage method is sound because the aircraft would only need to refuel with hydrogen as needed. However, hydrogen can be incredibly flammable if exposed to a spark, limiting its use in aviation. 

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