What stops electric planes from taking off? - Hindustan Times
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What stops electric planes from taking off?

By | Edited by Aryan Prakash
Aug 23, 2022 02:44 PM IST

Although the development is underway for the past 30 years, the batteries prove to be a limiting factor. The key task is to pack more power into smaller spaces.

Aeroplanes are one of the major sources of carbon emission, they leave huge carbon footprint. Scientists are brainstorming to reduce these greenhouse-gas emissions by developing innovative methods, of which electric planes are thought to be a better way forward. However, electric planes are less efficient than their counterparts, lowering their usability. A report published in the MIT Technology review attributes the limitation of batteries as the reason behind the low productivity of electric planes.

Green house gases emissions from aeroplanes has become major concern for environmental sustainability. (Photo by Upal Patel on Unsplash)
Green house gases emissions from aeroplanes has become major concern for environmental sustainability. (Photo by Upal Patel on Unsplash)

The battery technology available is not that advanced to store required energy in such a small space. “Today’s batteries don’t have the energy density necessary to power anything but the lightest planes. And even for those, the trip will be about as far as a long bike ride,” the article states. Aeroplanes can’t carry big and bulky batteries. There are huge constraints of space and weight on the planes.

The batteries prove to be a limiting factor. A key task is to pack more power into smaller spaces. The development which is underway for the past 30 years, could help electric planes become a more workable option for flying. However, the article asserts that due to unavailability of any such option presently, the future of electric planes depends on the future of progress in battery technology.

How Battery-powered planes could significantly reduce greenhouse gases emissions?

According to the report, the aviation sector contributes 3% of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change. These battery-powered planes could help speed decarbonisation of our air travel.

The report cites Jayant Mukhopadhaya, a transportation analyst at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), who says that a battery-powered plane charged with renewable energy could produce nearly 90% less emissions than today’s jet fuel planes.

Batteries are also an efficient way of storing and using renewable electricity. If we neglect the minor losses of energy in the motor and in the battery, almost 70% of the energy used to charge up a battery would actually power the plane. The report mentions this efficiency is far better than other options being considered to decarbonise flight. The alternatives, hydrogen and synthetic fuel, have efficiencies as low as 20 to 30% and to manufacture it economically and at such scale is a task.

Is there any other option in practice ?

The other option explored with current technology is to develop small electric planes capable of short trips. The article gives the example of Sweden-based Heart Aerospace’s 19-seat plane that expects to start for flight tests in 2024 and could fly commercially by 2026.

However, an analysis of the design using estimates for current battery densities and plane weight restrictions, claims that 19-seat battery-powered aircraft would have a maximum cruise range of about 260 km (roughly 160 miles), significantly less than the company’s claim of 400 km (roughly 250 miles).

Although this claim is rejected by the startup terming that the outside analysts don’t have knowledge of the company’s technology, the constraint of batteries seems to be the major hindrance in the adoption of electric planes.

The true range will even reduce more because of the necessity of reserve requirements. It is the extra capacity a plane should have to circle the airport for 30 minutes in case it can’t land right away and also in case of emergency, it must be able to reach an alternative airport 100 km (60 miles). “When you take all that into account, the usable range of a 19-seat plane goes from about 160 miles to about 30 miles,” the article specifies.

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