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Electric Dreams – the future of MAF?

10th March 2022

An example of an electric aircraft

Aviation experts grappled with zero co2 emissions and the future of flying at MAF’s fourth Ecological and Electric Aviation Conference on 9 March in Finland. With electric cars already a reality, how long before electric aircraft regularly grace our skies? Conference speakers, George Bye and Anders Forslund, weigh up the pros and cons of going electric

Aerospace entrepreneur, pilot and engineer George Bye is the founding CEO of Bye Aerospace in the US and hailed as the ‘Father of today’s electric aviation industry’ (Twin and Turbine Magazine).

Twenty years in the industry has led him and his team to develop the all-electric eFlyer 2, eFlyer 4 and eFlyer 800 aircraft. His eFlyer 2 is now undergoing the FAA certification process (America’s Federal Aviation Administration).

George believes that using electric aircraft will dramatically reduce the cost of aviation operations, cut noise pollution and its carbon footprint, and increase efficiency:

‘Millions of metric tons of co2 would be eliminated every year. Electric aircraft radiates roughly 1/1000th of noise from a conventional aircraft – that’s 30 decibels quieter.

‘Electric energy is less expensive and efficiently created in the power grid, which means an eFlyer’s total operating cost is only one fifth of a conventional fuel-based aircraft.

‘eFlyers have an aero efficiency of 20 compared to a Cessna, which has an aero efficiency of under 10.’

George Bye, Founding CEO of Bye Aerospace

Recruiting and training new pilots would also be revolutionised by electric aircraft.

According to Boeing’s 20-year forecast, 612,000 pilots are required worldwide – that’s 30,000 new pilots per year. However, pilot training is so expensive, 80% of trainees quit before qualifying says George:

‘Today’s problem of pilot shortages and training costs affects the future, but going all electric means a greater reduction in pilot training costs because flight operating costs are massively reduced. Electric aviation meets that challenge.’

Battery challenges

The long-term benefits of electric aircraft are undeniable in terms of cost savings and climate impact, but what about some of the challenges?

Adequate infrastructure to charge car batteries in developed countries is currently patchy, let alone powering electric aircraft in the remotest places on earth where MAF operates.

Battery life is also a challenge. Today, a typical fuel-based British Airways flight from London to New York takes 7 hours and 15 minutes (around 3,450 miles), but a battery powerful enough to last the duration of a transatlantic flight is still in the making.

Aviation battery development still has a way to go explains George:

‘Solid state lithium metal battery designs are still unproven in terms of stability, despite offering better energy density and increased safety when compared to lithium-ion batteries. Most battery companies are targeting a 2022-2023 timeline for mass production of the new battery cells.

‘Understanding battery cell maturity is how we’ll get from the eFlyer 2 to the eFlyer 4 to the eFlyer 800. Battery module developers are testing the cells and bringing the maturity and safety of the electric storage system to the electric propulsion system. All the characteristics of the cell and the modules are coming together in our programme, which continues to go forward with the FAA and our engineers.’

Anders Forslund is the founding CEO of Heart Aerospace in Sweden, which aims to create the first commercial electric airliner.

Anders and team have designed the Heart ES19 – a 19- passenger electric aircraft with a 400km (248 mile) range. It will hit the Scandinavian market in 2026.

Charging this aircraft is not dissimilar from charging an electric truck, but charging is nevertheless time consuming.

Every 2 minutes in the air takes one minute of charging or a one-hour flight takes half an hour to charge. Anders echoes George’s frustration with aviation battery technology:

‘The limiting factor is the cellular technology. Some cells (batteries) can do fast charging. We are talking to different suppliers but there is always a trade-off between energy density, cycle life and charging time, so we need to pick the right strategy.  Charging time is a key defining feature of electric aviation.’

The benefits of the ES19 are huge however, as Anders testifies:

‘It’s green – there are zero co2 emissions and zero NOx emissions (poisonous nitrogen oxides which are produced when fuel is burned at high temperatures).

‘It’s 17 metres from nose to tail with a wingspan of 23 metres. It operates on a 750-metre runway and is very low noise. Although we developed it for the Nordic market, it’s scalable, accessible and affordable. We can develop this technology and export it around the world.’

United Airlines – one of the largest airlines in the world – has put in an order for 200 ES19s.

A race for electrification

Sweden and Denmark aim to operate fossil fuel free domestic flights by 2030 (source: BBC).

Norway’s target is 2040, whereas Finland is aiming for 2045. Anders says Norway is one to watch:

‘In record time, Norway has electrified their cars and they’re electrifying their ferries. Now they’re setting their sights on their node network – a large fleet of turboprops flying very short routes.

‘They’re creating an evenly distributed node network so that Norwegians can travel around their country very efficiently.’

Clearly, Heart Aerospace and Bye Aerospace have ambitious plans for future aviation but going full electric will require the support of governments and other big stakeholders. Change will not happen overnight concludes Anders:

‘Norway works because they have a policy in place where their government subsidises air travel. If we could get the same kind of subsidy for flights as train travel, then it would be much easier to implement a decentralised network like Norway. Since Heart Aerospace is a zero emissions alternative, we are not worse than trains, we’re better!

‘Today’s airports are designed for today’s fuel-based aircraft. From operational rules to certifications – none of it has been designed for electric aircraft. We really want to make electric work with the regulations and the airport infrastructure that is already out there. We’ll have to set up charging stations, but we won’t necessarily have to reinvent the airport.

‘Once we start delivering electric aircraft, the next generation will understand how to operate and optimise the airport for electric usage, but for now we have that stepping stone of working with the old infrastructure. It’s not going to happen overnight – it’s going to take some time.’