Electric aircraft heading onto the runway

Thursday 6 December 2018

In Norway all short flights are going to be electric powered as soon as 2040. In countries like the USA, China, Germany and France, small and large companies are investing considerable resources into developing electric aircraft. But Sweden is not on the runway – yet.

There are two alternatives for fossil-free aviation – biofuel or electric power. But biofuel is about three or four times more expensive than aviation kerosene.

“With biofuel it would be up to 50 percent more expensive to fly, and there’s not enough bioenergy to fuel all modes of transportation,” said Per Kågeson of Nature Associates at an IVA seminar.

Electric-powered aircraft will not solve the entire problem of aviation emissions, and current batteries would make the bigger aircraft so heavy that they would barely be able to take off from the runway. But for shorter stretches of 500–1,000 km, electric aircraft may be a realistic option in the not-too-distant future.

Anders Forslund at Chalmers University of Technology is heading a Vinnova-funded project focusing on electric air transportation in Sweden. The goal is to take stock of Sweden’s needs and Swedish expertise, and to produce a plan for a prototype.

“A lot is being invested in this in many places around the world. Various types of aircraft are being developed. Prototypes for both small and large planes already exist. Airbus is one example of a company that’s involved,” said Anders Forslund, who thinks that electric aircraft cannot be compared to traditional aeroplanes.

“Electric aircraft are an entirely new mode of transportation. The planes have zero emissions, they don’t make as much noise and the cost of energy is going down.”

They are also less complicated to build, partly because the engines need fewer moving parts.

They will quite simply be cheaper to manufacture than today’s jet planes.

Although electric aircraft will be slower than jets, Anders Forslund believes that they could breathe new life into small, often municipal and unprofitable airports. The airport equipment required does not need to be as complicated and the runways can be shorter.

“We are aiming at having a full-scale prototype ready in spring 2021. We’ll fly it remotely. Then it will take at least five years before we’ll see the first passenger plane.”

Anders points out that the industrial expertise exists in Sweden to make this happen.

Swedavia, which operates the state-owned airports in Sweden, also sees an electrified future.

“Electric air travel is coming, but it will bring challenges. How will the batteries be charged, for example?” asks Henrik Littorin of Swedavia.

He thinks it will be best to begin with small airfields. From there the electric planes would be able to operate at the larger ones.

“We need to electrify everything we can. We therefore need the politicians to set a firm goal. But I’m sure we’ll have scheduled flights with electric aircraft between Stockholm and Gothenburg long before we’ll be able to step onto a bullet train,” he said.

 

Author: Pär Rönnberg