All-electric aviation is the future the aviation sector is betting on. Not only will all-electric aircraft produce zero carbon emissions, but airlines hope they will also reduce operating costs by up to 90%, maintenance costs by up to 50%, and noise by nearly 70%.
But battery density has proven to be an obstacle for range and speed for all-electric aircraft.
DHL Express, the air cargo subsidiary of Deutsche Post AG has an order for 12 all-electric aircraft “to complement its fleet of battery-powered delivery vans and bikes, a move that will reduce emissions from air services”
The Eviation built freighters, known as Alice models, will be able to carry 2,600 pounds (1,179 kilograms) and have a range of 440 nautical miles.
“The Alice can be charged while loading and unloading operations occur,” DHL said in a statement on Tuesday, adding it takes 30 minutes to charge the plane’s batteries. The aircraft are slated to join DHL’s fleet in 2024 and be deployed on routes in California, a company spokesman said.
“The electrification of every transport mode plays a crucial role and will significantly contribute to our overall sustainability goal of zero emissions,” said DHL Express chief executive officer John Pearson.
These deals are a reflection of the intensifying pressure on transport providers from regulators and investors to lower emissions and minimise their impact on climate change.
Commercial aviation continues to be responsible for about 2-3% of global carbon emissions. The World Wildlife Fund describes aviation as “one of the fastest-growing sources of the greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change.” It adds that air travel is “currently the most carbon intensive activity an individual can make.”
But to date, the industry has made most progress on efficiency gains on new aircraft. Today around 85% more efficient than those entering service in the 1960s.
For electric flying, a key challenge in building electric aircraft involves how much energy can be stored in a given amount of weight of the on-board energy source. Although the best batteries store about 40 times less energy per unit of weight than jet fuel, a greater share of their energy is available to drive motion.
Jet fuel contains about 14 times more usable energy than a state-of-the-art lithium-ion battery. This makes batteries very heavy for aviation — and that’s an issue the sector is still grappling with today. When you combine this with the fact that aviation is always aggressively trying to offload extra weight onboard (whether it’s through the installation of light-weight-slimline seats, fewer onboard bathrooms, the removal of onboard literature, etc) you begin to realise just how much of a challenge this is.
There are some manufacturers are working on the problem, but the launch of commercial models remains years away. Companies like DHL say they will use the model to transport time-sensitive packages for customers in all environments currently serviced by piston and turbine aircraft.
Last month, Rolls-Royce’s first all-electric aircraft completed its maiden flight, soaring across skies in the UK for around 15 minutes this week. In a statement, the company said the aircraft’s trip on Wednesday marked “the beginning of an intense flight-testing phase” that would involve the collection of performance data on its electrical power and propulsion system.
According to Rolls-Royce, the airplane — dubbed the “Spirit of Innovation” — utilised a 400-kilowatt electric powertrain “with the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft.” Rolls-Royce hope the aircraft’s speed will eventually exceed 300 miles per hour.
Lilium — a German start-up making electric jets that can take off and land vertically, has announced plans to sell 220 of its vehicles for up to $1bn to Brazilian airliner Azul.
The two firms plan to build an eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft network across Brazil between now and 2025. “The aircraft we’re planning to launch will do 175 miles an hour,” Alex Asseily, Lilium’s chief strategy officer, told media. “The range will be 155 miles.”
Lilium’s latest aircraft is a five-seater model but the one that goes into serial production and gets sold to Azul will be a seven-seater model, Asseily said, adding that the production line is 50% complete. Each Lilium jet will cost Azul roughly $4.5mn.
It’s a significant development for the Brazilian airline, Azul, which is the largest domestic airline in Brazil in terms of cities served and daily departures.
John Rodgerson, CEO of Azul, said in a statement that Azul’s brand, route network and loyalty programme will help to “create the markets and demand for the Lilium jet network in Brazil.”
Investors have backed Lilium, which competes with the likes of Airbus and BlackFly, with $300mn so far. However, the company is planning to raise an additional $830mn that will give it a post-money valuation of around $3.3bn. The money is being raised through a SPAC with QellSPAC, and will be chaired by former Airbus CEO Thomas Enders.
While it’s certainly a ’race’ to electric, it’s anything but fast. Airbus’s plans for hydrogen-powered aircraft (in addition to its electric jet plans) predict the aircraft will fly in 2035, while Boeing has suggested this is unlikely before 2050.
*The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir