Electric and hybrid propulsion systems are increasingly common, if not standard, across a wide swath of transportation and automotive industries. To that end, electrifying flight on a large scale remains particularly challenging although recent technological advancements have brought it closer to fruition. The additional push to remove carbon emissions from flights has created significant motivation for both government and industry groups to spur research upwards growth in the field. Norway announced that it wants all short-haul flights in the country to be electric by 2040. Sweden and Denmark have committed to making domestic flights fossil-fuel free by 2030, 10 years earlier than Norway. Sweden wants to make international flights green by 2045.
A common concern is that the weight of batteries is too heavy, which makes fully electric planes (especially for long flights, i.e. international ones) difficult to achieve in the near-term. As a result, aircrafts with hybrid power-systems (battery and conventional fuel) also have the potential to decrease emissions, and are particularly useful in the near-term as we wait for improvements in battery technology. On its site, Rolls Royce notes that it “costs less to maintain an electric aircraft through reduced fuel costs. Hybrid-electric propulsion systems carry the potential of reduced fuel burn and operating cost. This makes it less costly to train pilots” and “Reduced noise will allow aircraft operations to be extended beyond the current limits”.
Regardless of current technological constraints, the market for electric planes is seen to be one with huge potential for returns on investment in the medium-term. By 2040, the eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) and air taxi market is forecasted to be worth $1.5 trillion.
The market is supported by significant public and private investment on all levels around the world, with a large amount of investment and innovation occurring in European states. The British Government, along with industry, committed £84 million towards a ‘green aviation revolution’. It also created a £3m competition to fund pioneering research into electric and hydrogen aircraft development. In addition, the US Government announced $33 million in funding for 17 projects related to hybrid/electric aviation. With the potential for innovation across several fields, the EU funds a project which develops prototype planes using electric motors and modular power-generation systems
Other recent advancements in the field include:
- Scandinavian regional airline Widerøe partnering with Rolls Royce to electrify the airline’s regional fleet and bring electric planes to service as early as 2026
- Safran (France) and Boeing recently announced a joint venture to develop batteries for urban air mobility and electric aircraft projects.
- German-based Lilium Aviation have already accumulated over 1,000 test flights of electric planes with the goal of disrupting the market with electric air taxis for everyday travel.
- Israeli aerospace company Eviation has taken significant steps towards flying the world’s first all electric passenger plane, “The Alice”. Alice currently has the capacity to take 9 passengers a maximum of 440 nautical miles (814 km) at a top cruising speed of 250 kts (463 kph). Eviation additionally forecasts that passenger planes with the capacity for 20-40 individuals will be reality in seven to ten years as battery technology improves.