October 6, 2022

For years, scientists have sought quiet, climate-friendly airplanes that rely on batteries instead of jet fuel. Now they are closer to taking them to the sky.

Several airlines, including United, Mesa and Air Canada, have begun ordering a battery-powered plane called the Heart Aerospace ES-30. The Swedish-made, four-propeller, battery-powered plane can seat up to 30 people and could fly short routes such as Palm Springs to Los Angeles or Denver to Aspen with no carbon emissions. It is scheduled to be in the air by 2028.

Meanwhile, small electric single-passenger planes are also getting the green light to fly, with some used by armies in Europe. Electric seaplanes are being tested and used in Canada. Analysts at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory now predict that 50- to 70-seat hybrid electric planes could be in service within a decade.

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Electric planes could solve major headaches for airlines, manufacturers and industry experts say. They could help companies deliver on promises to cut emissions and make shorter flight routes financially feasible by minimizing fuel and maintenance costs.

But major challenges remain, starting with battery technology, which needs to advance rapidly to make commercial travel viable. On top of that, the planes will need regulatory approvals, and airlines will have to convince passengers that flying thousands of feet in the air on batteries is also safe.

“We haven’t done anything this new with airplanes in forever,” said Gökçin Çınar, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. But “there’s definitely a lot more we need to work on.”

Globally, commercial aviation accounts for 2.4 percent of the world’s climate emissions, but this could rise to 22 percent by 2050 if no changes are made, the European government says data emissions.

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Anders Forslund, founder and CEO of Heart Aerospace, launched his company in 2018 and designed the ES-19, an electric 19-seat aircraft. Last week, the company announced a plane that could seat 30 people, the ES-30.

The plane, company officials say, can fly up to 194 miles entirely on batteries and emit zero emissions. It is powered by more than 5 tons of lithium-ion batteries stored in its lower part, near the landing gear, Forslund said. The plane would fill up in about 30 minutes.

Air Canada has ordered 30 of these planes. United Airlines and Mesa Airlines ordered 100 each.

The ES-30 has a maximum range of nearly 500 miles, although any flight longer than 124 miles requires the assistance of a sustainable generator that uses jet fuel on board. In hybrid mode, the plane would emit carbon emissions at a rate 50 percent lower than its jet-only counterparts, Forslund said. Cabin noise would be far lower than what commercial passengers are used to, he added.

The aircraft is projected to have operating costs per seat similar to a 50-person propeller plane, which airlines may find financially attractive. Making electric planes that are economically attractive to airlines is key to widespread adoption and reducing climate emissions, Forslund said.

“If you can only make it [the plane] they work technically, but not commercially,” he said, “then the climate proposal will be smaller.”

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Experts warn that the skies are unlikely to be filled with all-electric planes any time soon.

Scientists will have to push lithium-ion technology to unknown limits or create batteries using a different chemistry. And the Federal Aviation Administration has not finalized how it will certify electric planes as safe for passenger flight. The FAA is working on these regulations, but it is unclear whether they will be ready before 2028, Çınar said.

“Our industry doesn’t usually make big changes. You make minimal changes over time,” she said. “So there’s a lot of risk, but there’s a lot of reward.”

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