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Electric Dreams

Some of the industry's biggest players are setting their sights on electric aircraft and engines.

To judge by recent headlines, one might think commercial air transport is almost ready to ditch fossil fuels.

This week’s announcement of a new electric-engine project comes several months after Easyjet said it wanted to introduce an electric aircraft within 10 years.

The latest project, a collaboration between Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens, has the more achievable goal of flying a hybrid-electric engine on board a BAE 146 test aircraft in 2020.

Crucially, the other three engines of the regional jet will be standard powerplants, although the project does envisage replacing a second engine in time.

Nonetheless, it is extremely unlikely that any standard commercial flight will use electric engines within the next few decades – at least until a quantum leap in battery technology delivers vastly superior power-to-weight ratios from the best current technology.

That being the case, the best Easyjet can hope to achieve in the next 10 years is perhaps an air taxi to ferry a handful of passengers.

For the latest E-Fan X demonstrator, Rolls-Royce will be responsible for the turbo-shaft engine, two megawatt generator, and power electronics.

Along with Airbus, which will cover overall system integration, Rolls-Royce will also work on the fan adaptation to the existing nacelle and the electric motors.

The two-megawatt electric motors and their power electronic control unit, as well as the inverter, DC/DC converter, and power distribution system will come from Siemens

E-Fan X will investigate certain challenges of electric propulsion, including thermal effects, electric thrust management, altitude and dynamic effects on electric systems and electromagnetic compatibility issues.

Paul Eremenko, Airbus’ sometimes controversial head of technology, says the demonstrator “will pave the way to a hybrid single-aisle commercial aircraft that is safe, efficient, and cost-effective”.

That it may do, but the way is long indeed.

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