The great electric air race has begun. Three European industry heavyweights have teamed up against a US startup and Britain’s biggest budget airline to develop the first commercial electric aircraft.
Within a decade, according to the Californian firm Wright Electric, passengers could be flying on battery-powered flights between London and Amsterdam, with far less environmental impact than conventional aircraft.
European developers are more cautious, forecasting hybrid commuter jets will start flying routes of up to 1,000km between 2030 and 2035.
But the deal signed today by Rolls-Royce with the planemaker Airbus and the eAircraft division of Siemens shows that the mainstream industry is now taking electric propulsion for commercial planes seriously.
The three firms announced the groundbreaking collaboration at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London – and revealed that they will test the new technology aboard an old jet.
A British Aerospace 146 commuter aircraft will be adapted to carry two tons of batteries and the world’s most powerful flying generator. One of its four engines will be converted to run on electricity.
The test bed will be used to evaluate the concept that electricity can be generated efficiently and safely in flight, and that an electric jet engine is capable of working as safely and effectively as one that burns kerosene.
The three companies are each investing tens of millions of pounds to develop a hybrid aircraft that could use battery power to increase thrust for takeoff, while using a conventional gas-turbine engine during the cruise.
“A gas turbine is extremely efficient when it is operating optimally,” said Mark Cousin, head of flight demonstration at Airbus. “But it is not very efficient in all phases of flight.”
During takeoff an aircraft requires double the power that it requires in cruise. If electricity could be used in this phase of the flight, it could dramatically reduce both fuel consumption and noise.
Paul Stein, chief technology officer for Rolls-Royce, said: “If we can drive the noise down and move runways closer to the centre of cities, aviation may be the transportation of norm rather than laying down railway lines.
“It has the potential to connect the world a lot more effectively than rail.”
Dr Frank Anton, executive vice-president of eAircraft at Siemens, told The Independent that the optimum range was around 500 nautical miles (926km). “We believe this will be the sweet spot. The technology is best between 300km and 1,000km.”
The upper limit would allow flights from London to Marseille, Manchester to Geneva and Edinburgh to Copenhagen.
But Britain’s biggest budget airline, easyJet, is working with a Los Angeles-based company, Wright Electric, to develop a wholly new commercial all-electric jet by 2027.
The carrier’s outgoing chief executive, Carolyn McCall, said: “Just as we have seen with the automotive industry, the aviation industry will be looking to electric technology to reduce our impact on the environment.
“For the first time we can envisage a future without jet fuel and we are excited to be part of it. It is now more a matter of when, not if, a short haul electric plane will fly.”
The new aircraft will carry around 150 passengers, and will initially be “ultra short haul”, with a range of 540km. But easyJet says that could be sufficient for one-fifth of its current route network, including Belfast-London-Amsterdam, Bristol-Edinburgh and Paris-Geneva.
The aim to fly such links within a decade depends on improvements in the power to weight ratio of batteries, as well as new propulsion systems.
Jeffrey Engler, chief executive and founder of Wright Electric, conceded: “It’s a very daunting task.”
Dr Anton welcomed the competition, but said that his project does not depend on yet-to-be invented technology.
“We are not betting on batteries, we are betting on hybrids,” he said. “Batteries add additional power during takeoff and climb.”
And he added his personal dream: “One day I want to buy a ticket for a hybrid electric plane from Nuremberg to Paris.”