It is not so long ago that it sounded far out to drive in a battery-powered car or SUV, let alone a gas-free pickup. Now that electric vehicles are filling roads across the country, Tesla’s Elon Musk is one of the richest men on the planet, and engineers are focused on making another form of transportation greener: air travel.
At the recent UN climate summit in Glasgow, some of the major airlines signed a pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the short term, it means the use of sustainable fuels. But these fuels are in short supply, expensive and still create greenhouse gas production. In the long run, US airlines, including United and Alaska Airlines, promise to have net zero CO2 emissions.
To do so, these airlines will eventually have to drop traditional fuels.
“Sustainability is a place that we are all aware that we need to scale,” Diana Birkett Rakow, senior vice president of sustainability, told Alaska Airlines during an interview with ABC News at Alaska’s headquarters near Seattle. “We are hyper-focused right now on things that can help us accelerate our path to net-zero CO2 emissions and that we could see viable in our operations in the next three, five, 10 years.”
Several aircraft manufacturers, from small startups to giants in the industry, are working on designing and building battery-powered commercial aircraft that could be reliable and at a price that would be attractive to airlines.
The battery power needed to power an airplane filled with passengers at cross-altitude, through the air and with all safety systems in place, is far greater than what vehicles need on the ground to drive through the city. In fact, the batteries developed for smaller commercial aviation are the size of buses and weigh thousands of pounds.
Technology for large aircraft like a Boeing 777 can be decades away. But if all goes according to plan, the smell of aviation fuel at the airport will start to disappear in a few years, and smaller planes will not emit anything from their engines.
In a hangar in a sleepy corner of the local airport in Arlington, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle, a company is leading the aircraft electrification race. In 2015 in Israel, Omer Bar-Yohay set up a company called Eviation with the goal of creating environmentally friendly aircraft. Now, with strong investor funding from global firms as far away as Singapore and trading with airlines, his idea of a battery-powered commercial aircraft is coming to life inside the hoop in Arlington. The plane is mostly built, and Eviation plans to fly it for the first time in the coming weeks.
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Original designs for the aircraft had a more drone-like look as they included propellers in unconventional locations. These plans have been changed and the aircraft is closer to a normal-looking aircraft. For Bar-Yohay, it is important that his aircraft looks and functions like any other aircraft, minus the jet fuel, so that it will be easy for pilots to fly and passengers will be comfortable riding in it.
“It’s an airplane. It works like an airplane. It has sticks. It has a throttle handle. It behaves like an airplane, which means that if something goes wrong, it is fail-safe. It continues operation and brings you to a landing, because there are so many redundancies built into it, “Bar-Yohay said as he showed the plane in the final collection.
The plane is called Alice. Like other battery- or hydrogen-powered scheduled aircraft under development, it would be used for relatively short flights with under a dozen passengers. But as battery technology evolves, Bar-Yohay hopes the scale of the aircraft will grow.
The day ABC News visited, Alice’s batteries had just arrived, and engineers in hazmat-like suits were working on mounting the giant batteries on the left and right sides of the plane. The batteries will be 50% of the take-off weight and form the fuselage of the aircraft near where the wings attach.
“An airport today is an unpleasant experience. It’s noisy, it smells because of the aviation fuel, and you know it’s very, very polluting,” Bar-Yohay explained. “Alice changes a lot of things. The plane is dramatically quieter. An electric plane can optimize propeller noise better because the engines are more efficient. You can be about half to fifty times quieter.”
Alice’s wings and main cabin are built and ready. The wings have been shown solely to give a sense of proportion. The cockpit will be equipped with all the screens one would see in any other aircraft.
As planned, the aircraft could be flown by a single pilot, but there will be two front seats for pilots like a traditional passenger aircraft.
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Eviation says the operation of Alice will cost far less than what airlines pay today for jet-fueled aircraft. “The beautiful part about this plane, besides being a great plane and looking great, is that it makes economic sense today,” Bar-Yohay explained. “Per hour of the flight, we cost about $ 100- $ 120 dollars for the battery depending on how it is operated and used. It is dramatically cheaper than the maintenance cost of the corresponding system.”
Eviation already has orders for Alice flights from airlines such as DHL and Cape Air, which operate short commuter flights on the east coast. The company teases that more deals will soon be announced with other regional airlines. Bar-Yohay says the plane will be able to fly about 440 miles. Although not a long-haul aircraft, 440 miles suits the needs of many regional airlines around the world. Charging the aircraft will be similar to charging a Tesla. While passengers board, the aircraft will be connected and able to handle most of a flight in just 30 minutes of charging.
“It’s a plane built in the 21st century. We all have fly-by-wire,” Bar-Yohay said. He promises the most advanced autopilot system that will compete with that found on a Boeing 787 or an Airbus A350.
The engines, or electric propulsion as it is known on e-planes, were designed, built and are also in final testing by a sister company called magniX. To the untrained eye, it looks like the propellers that have been on airplanes for decades. But they will not require any jet fuel to operate and will emit zero CO2 emissions.
Bar-Yohay is not worried that major aircraft manufacturers are making their own electric aircraft. He invites to competition to try to build a better product. He said that while larger companies are talking about battery-powered aircraft and starting to design them, no big company has reached out to Eviation, which is getting ready to fly and has airlines waiting to put pilots in the eco-friendly cockpit.
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“The industry needs a kick in the butt,” Bar-Yohay said. “It needs someone to come in and say hello, we built it, we’re actually eating portions of your lunch, maybe it’s not the lunch you thought you would lose because we’re not competing with the Boeing 737 right now, but when you look at the big picture, would not you rather fly Alice? “
Eviation claims that the quieter, less smelly, environmentally friendly experience will attract passengers who choose to fly on a green plane.
It’s hard to find an exact test flight day around Seattle due to rain, but Bar-Yohay believes Alice will begin test flights before the end of the year. He hopes to be on board with the test pilots as it rolls down the runway powered only by batteries. Within a few years, he believes Eviations Alice will be the aircraft that regional airlines will fly around the world.
Battery-powered aircraft, the next phase of green transport originally appeared on abcnews.go.com