If you think electric cars are impressive, how about an electric 747? On a smaller scale, that flight of fancy is becoming a reality.
Two years ago in Santa Rosa, CA, an electric-powered 4-seat light plane won the NASA/Google Green Flight Challenge by flying over 200 miles non-stop at over 100 MPH while achieving 403.5 passenger miles per gallon (mpg) using the equivalent of less than one gallon of gasoline. Compare that to the Chevy Volt—the current state of the art in electric (land-based) vehicles—which gets the equivalent of 112 mpg in all-electric mode while driving slowly over flat roads. And even with the benefit of wheels and a 435 lb. battery, the Volt can only keep that up for 35 miles, at which point it reverts to its gas engine, which gets 37 mpg.
The winner of the $1.65 million prize was Team Pipistrel from Penn State, flying a Taurus G4 manufactured in Slovenia. The G4 is a four-seat, twin engine plane with a wingspan of 69’2” and weighing 2,490 lb, slightly less than a Volkswagen Beetle. The two 145 KW (194 HP) motors can drive Pipistrel to about 114 mph, so it won the Challenge race running almost flat out.
Detailed data on the custom-built G4 is hard to come by, but not for the production model Taurus Electro G2. The body is a composite of epoxy resin, fiberglass, carbon fibers and Kevlar in a honeycomb structure. The motor is a high-performance synchronous 3-phase outrunner with permanent magnets, delivering 40 kW on takeoff and 30 kW continuous. The best glide ratio is 1:41, which really qualifies it as a powered glider. To put it in perspective, the typical glide ratio for a two-seat general aviation plane is about 1:10. Aside from getting unimpressive mileage, you really don’t want to run out of gas while flying your Piper Cub. Or in a 747 for that matter.
Electric gliders have been around for a while. The first commercial one was the AE-1 Silent, which first flew in 1997. Weighing a mere 430 lb., the AE-1 is easily powered by its 13 kW (17 Hp) electric motor, which in turn works from a 4.1 kW/77 lb. Li-Ion battery. If you’re so inclined the AE-1 is FAA certified as an ultralight aircraft and it’s still being produced.
More high powered is the Antares 20E from Lange Aviation GmbH, in production since 2004. The 20E is powered by a 42 kW (52 hp) BLDC electric motor weighing 64 lb. Energy storage consists of 72 Li-Ion cells each rated at 44 Ah at 3.7V, for a combined capacity of 12 kWh @ 266V. With a wingspan of 65 ft. and weighing in at 1,455 lb, this is a serious airplane—though still a one seater. The 20E can self launch and climb to 3,300 ft. in four minutes and climb to 10,000 ft., where it can fly for 1.5 hours. Assuming you’ve covered 93 miles at that point and a maximum glide ratio of 1:56 (!), the maximum range then becomes (93+(2×56))=205 miles.
Now let’s figure the mileage for just the powered portion of the flight. Assuming your flight fully depleted the 12 kWh batteries, that works out to 12 kWh/93 miles or 12.9 kWh/100 miles. Using the same formula the EPA applied to the Chevy Volt—where 36 kWh/100 miles = 93 mpg-e—the Antares comes in 2.8x better at 260 mpg equivalent! That’s a pretty energy efficient way to travel.
In an interesting twist Lange is now producing the Antares DLR-H2, which is powered by hydrogen fuel cells, with the tanks slung in pods under the wings. The actual motive force is a 42 kW BLDC motor. The 130 lb. fuel cells can generate 20 kW continuously, twice the 10 kW required for level flight. The DLR-H2 can attain a height of 12,000 ft and has a top speed of 105 mph and a range of 1,240 miles.
Using solar cells to recharge your batteries while in flight can greatly extend your range. In 1990 the solar powered plane Sunseeker flew across the U.S. powered by a 250W array of thin-film solar cells. Since solar cells obviously don’t work at night, it took two weeks to accomplish this task.
The first solar powered plane to complete a 24 hour flight was Solar Impulse. Claiming to have “the wingspan of an Airbus [208 ft.]…the weight of a family car [3,500 lb.]…and the power of a scooter [40 hp],” its designers plan to fly it around the world in 2012. The solar cells on the wings of Solar Impulse cover 650 sq. ft. and can generate 6 kW (8.2 hp), which is stored in Li-Ion cells during the night. All things being equal, this should be enough to keep the 1.6 ton plane aloft day and night while traveling at just over 40 mph.
Even electric commercial airliners are in the works. In Europe EADS, Airbus’ parent company, has proposed the VoltAir ducted fan engine that would power commercial airliners. To achieve the energy density required to move such a massive aircraft, the VoltAir motor would be constructed of high-temperature superconducting (HTS) materials, cooled by liquid nitrogen. HTS motors are expected to reach power densities of 7-8 kW/kg, comparable to 7 kW/kg for today’s turboshaft engines. The batteries will still be Li-Ion, which EADS hopes will become more efficient, or Li-Air should it become commercially viable by then.
Coming to an Airport Near You
While electric flight is both fun and interesting—especially to engineers—it may impact you sooner than you think. Every major city and most smaller ones have general aviation airports. The Taurus G2 and numerous others like it would make quiet, inexpensive air taxis practical. Not only are the planes inexpensive—about the cost of a high-end car—they’re extremely inexpensive to operate, highly reliable, quiet, and essentially non-polluting. Instead of fighting the traffic between New York and Boston or San Jose and Sacramento you would be able to hop a quick, cheap flight there and gaze smugly down at the congestion below.
So there you have it. Electric boats and cars—been there, done that. Stay tuned for electric aircraft. You hopefully won’t have to stay tuned for long, and it will be worth the wait.