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Volting into the air
Since the Wright Brothers first flew their Wright Flyer on the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, our aeroplanes have been powered by petroleum-based fuels, and have become one of the most polluting forms of transport. Emissions from aviation are a significant contributor to climate change. They burn fossil fuel, which not only releases CO2 emissions but also has strong warming non-CO2 effects due to nitrogen oxides, vapour trails and cloud formation triggered by the altitude at which aircraft operate. These non-CO2 effects contribute twice as much to global warming as aircraft CO2 and were responsible for two-thirds of aviation’s climate impact in 2018.
Emissions from aviation have been growing faster than that for any other mode of transport, and have more than doubled between 1990 and 2019. Aviation emissions went from 1.5% of all European emissions in 1990 to 4.7% in 2019. If unmitigated, aviation emissions could more than double (compared to 2019) by 2050 and in doing so, the sector will consume more than 10% of the remaining carbon budget to stay below 1.5°C of warming. If we could somehow replace the power of the kerosene-fuelled jet turbine with electric propulsion, the impact on global warming will be considerable.
One of the great predictors of scientific innovation is the American magazine Popular Mechanics.In 1904 it published an article speculating on whether or not an electrically-powered flying machine was feasible. The Wright Brothers had a year earlier made their epic flight covering 852 feet and lasting all of 59 seconds. Across the Atlantic, in Slovenia, the first former Yugoslav republic to join the European Union, a company called Pipistrel, which had been building hang-gliders from ultra-light materials, closed the circle by featuring in Popular Mechanics as one of that magazine’s “Ten Best Innovations of 2008 in the Aviation and Space category” for its electric version of the Taurus, a conventionally powered self-launching glider, thus achieving the world’s first two-seat fully electric aircraft and the first electric motor-glider to achieve serial production. The company currently has five models of electrically powered light aircraft in production.
But America too, is making strides. Recently a 1957 De Havilland Beaver, originally powered by a 450 horsepower radial petrol engine was pulled into the air by a magniX 500 horse power electric power train. It flew for 15 minutes on lithium ion batteries. Just like those in an electric car. MagniX was founded in Australia in 2009. In 2017 it developed an electric motor that became its prototype and led the company to focus on electric aviation and move its headquarters to Redmond, Washington, USA. From there, magniX partnered with Harbour Air to electrify its entire fleet: the first converted aircraft was to be the DHC-2 Beaver serving as the test prototype for the magniX motor, energy storage, and control systems.
On 10 December 2019, the eBeaver flew for the first time. Low energy density but proven lithium-ion batteries
filled the cabin and took the prototype to its maximum gross weight to provide enough energy for a 15 minute flight with a 25 minute reserve. The magni500 electric motor used in the Harbour Air electric de Havilland Beaver weighs 135 kg (297 lb) and develops 560 kW. In contrast, the Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior SB radial petrol engine it is replacing has a dry weight of 290 kg, not including oil, and produces (300 kW), more than halving the weight, while nearly doubling the power – a saving in this case that can be transferred toward carrying the difference in additional batteries.
The race is on: a newly-designed electric aircraft, called the E9X, can now hold more passengers and fly farther than what was previously thought to be possible, according to aviation startup Elysian, which conceptualised the design along with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands (ABC News, 11 January). Elysian envisages a design able to carry 90 passengers over 800 kilometres. This contradicts the previously held view that the maximum number of passengers that might be carried would not exceed 20 with a very limited range.
Manufacturers are looking at designing from scratch, building larger aeroplanes with efficiencies of scale, in addition to exploring the use of sustainable fuels. Virgin Atlantic has already flown a transatlantic flight using fuels made of a blend of mostly processed cooking oil and waste animal fat. An American pilot has flown an electrically powered plane through the crowded airspace of the US East Coast, landing and taking off 24 times to rest, and recharge the aircraft’s batteries. The plane has been handed to the US airforce for evaluation. As we have already learned on the ground, non-polluting electric vehicles are simpler to operate and maintain than their combustion-engined predecessors.
So it will be with their aerial counterparts.
John Fleming II

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