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Future aviation: industry giants are working on hybrid electric plane

Anastasia Dagaeva
November 29, 2017

Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens joined forces to develop hybrid electric engine plane technology as part of a push towards cleaner aviation, according to BBC. The three companies announced the collaboration on 28 November at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London.

The programme designated E-Fan X will first put one electric engine with three jet engines on a BAe 146 four-engined aircraft. The firms want to fly a demonstrator version of the aircraft by 2020, with a commercial introduction by 2025. All three companies are racing to develop electric engines for planes after pressure from the EU to cut aviation pollution. Each of the partners in the programme will be investing tens of millions of pounds.

Rolls-Royce will be providing the electricity generator at the back of the E-Fan X plane. The turbine powering the generator will run on jet fuel and provide power for the electric engine. Any excess power from the generator will be stored in banks of batteries in the fore and aft holds with the stored energy to be used during take-off and landing. A Rolls Royce representative said the company wanted to make the turbine as light as possible, and that "parts of the engine, generator and power electronic systems will be integrated to reduce weight.”

Three manufacturers are developing hybrid technology because fully electric commercial flights are out of reach currently. The weight of batteries coupled with the weight of equipment to cool electric engines are two limiting factors. "We see hybrid-electric propulsion as a compelling technology for the future of aviation," said Paul Eremenko, Airbus' chief technology officer.

There are several good reasons why Airbus rushes to develop electrified planes. Jet fuel makes up a significant proportion of a typical airline's running costs — over the past few years it has varied from 17-36%, depending on the price of oil. Use less fuel and costs should come down. It is also a noise issue. Modern jets aren't nearly as noisy as their predecessors from a 15-20 years ago, but they still make quite a thunder on landing or takeoff. Living close to the airport means high noise level. Electric motors are a lot quieter, so they could allow more night flights, especially in airports close to city centres.

It’s also the question of emissions. Electrified aircraft, like hybrid cars, should be cleaner than traditional schemes. With some forecasts suggesting the number of large aircraft will double over the next 20 years, they could become a powerful tool for cutting emissions of NOx and CO2. So the potential benefits are clear — but first the technology needs to be proven. Passengers safety is a priority.

That has been one of the driving forces behind the Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens programme. Other firms are also working on commercial passenger electric plane flight. EasyJet wants electric planes to fly passengers on its short-haul routes, possibly within 10 to 20 years. And Wright Electric is aiming to offer an electric-powered commercial flight from London to Paris in 10 years. Presumably the first airlines to fly electric planes will be freight operators. Should the technology prove itself safe, more passengers will be willing to fly e-planes.