an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

notes on the electrification of air travel

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stolen from NASA – hope I didn’t let the batt out of the bag

Air travel has become noticeably more popular over the past few decades – due largely to affordability. Even I can afford to catch a plane occasionally these days. And yet …

I realised something was out of kilter when I discovered that, in Europe, you can fly relatively cheaply from one major city to another by plane, whereas travelling by train costs more (sometimes much more) while being more efficient in terms of carbon emissions. So why is that, and what can be done about it?

Planes are generally more costly to run and, especially, to maintain than trains, and labour costs, too, are higher. Yet some of the larger airline companies are prepared to lose money on high-demand short-haul flights to maintain their profile, knowing they can gain on international flights. They can also be (or are) more flexible with their pricing, as this article points out, so that they can get bums on seats at suddenly slashed rates, filling their aircraft for each flight, unlike trains, which have basically operated under the same half-arsed system for over a century.

So, with the steady increase in domestic and international flights, and the lack of government oversight – e.g. taxation – of international airlines that transcend political borders, the carbon footprint of air flight (if that makes sense) is growing. A 2018 report on CO2 emissions stated that ‘using aviation industry values’ there was a 32% increase in aviation emissions in the previous five years. Which of course raises the question – how do we solve the problem of over-use of costly, environmentally-unfriendly jet fuel? The answer, of course, is electric propulsion. No? An electric motor is far simpler and easier to maintain than a jet engine (a turboprop engine has between 7000 and 10,000 moving parts). Energy costs are also cheaper, once a few problems are worked out – ahem.

The biggest problem, of course, is the battery. I’ve heard that AA batteries mightn’t be enough. Nor are the current generation of lithium-ion batteries, though innovation and research in this area is being driven by electric cars hoho. Clearly electric aircraft have to start small and short-haul, and they’re already doing so. I’ve written about this before, but it’s time for an update. Some of the companies involved include Pipistrel, Harbour Air and Eviation, but this is still extremely small-scale stuff as everybody waits for the battery boffins to perform the next miracle. Meanwhile, as with the motor vehicle industry, hybrids have been developed as a kind of stop-gap for larger capacity flights. Another company, Ampaire, has developed small hybrid aircraft with which it hopes to start daily operations in Hawaii in the near future. It’s also working in Norway, where they’re hoping to have all flights of 90 minutes or less to be be either fully electric or hybrid by 2040. I’m glad to hear that my birth country, Scotland is also investing in electric and hybrid planes for similar purposes. If these planes could be shown to be economically viable, then larger aeroplane companies will surely invest in them, as they tend to lose money on regional routes (small turbine engines being very inefficient). This could be the real game-changer, providing reason to invest in battery and other technology for longer electric flight. Changes in technology, combining standard aircraft design with helicopter design, are likely to make air flight more personalised in future, with less need to depend on airports. Of course this will come with regulatory and other issues, but it all makes for a more interesting future in the sky….

References

https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/cheap-flights-ryanair-train-tickets-rail-price-fares-budget-plane-a8969291.html

Why don’t we have electric planes yet? CNBC video

Written by stewart henderson

December 29, 2019 at 4:14 pm

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