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From the Ground Up: Electric Aircraft Hit the Friendly Skies

by John White |

Electric AircraftHybrid and electric cars have become a familiar sight on our roads, and even Barack Obama owns a Ford Escape Hybrid vehicle. They offer a particular advantage to UK motorists who can escape the congestion charge by opting for a car that runs on renewable energy, and owners can feel proud that they are doing their part to lessen the effects of global warming. The airline industry is another major contributor to the greenhouse effect, and commercial aircraft release huge amounts of CO2 into the air during flight. The idea of flying in an electric aircraft may seem like the stuff of science fiction novels, but many prototypes are already in existence and an all-electric passenger aircraft may be even closer than we think. Electric Aircrafts Already in Existence The Taurus Electro G2 is the brainchild of Pipistrel, an aircraft manufacturer based in Slovenia. Their two-person glider can climb up to 2000 metres on a single charge and features a solar panel trailer that recharges the aircraft's batteries in just five hours. Solar powered planes are by no means a new invention, and Sunseeker solar gliders have been in existence for over 30 years. Solar Impulse is an impressive craft built by Swiss engineers that recently managed to complete a journey from Switzerland to the United States with a short layover in Morocco. The glider can reach average speeds of 70km/h, and manufacturers are already planning a new aircraft that can complete an around the world flight in 2015. For shorter glider flights, visit wish.co.uk for a range of different options. Expanding the Concept to Commercial Aeroplanes Electric gliders that can carry a few passengers are not nearly as impressive as the idea of a commercial airbus running on batteries, and aerodynamic engineers are hoping to make this a reality. EADS are quietly developing ideas for the Innovation Works VoltAir concept plane that can carry hundreds of passengers using lithium-air and lithium-sulphur batteries, but those wishing to get on board the maiden voyage will need to wait another 20 years for the technology to become available. The Possibility of a Hybrid Aircraft Although a fully-electric commercial jet may take some time, Boeing and Airbus are searching for ways to blend electrical components into their existing aircrafts. Aeroplanes are incredibly inefficient when moving on land and produce huge amounts of noise and air pollution. An electrical drive system could enable them to taxi around the airport silently and efficiently and would save a huge amount of fuel. Engineer Chip Yates set a new air speed record of 202 mph last year in an electric aeroplane highlighting the rapid progress designers have made with electric motors. One of the main problems remains the limited energy density of battery packs, but future developments in this technology will mean that they will soon rival combustion engines for speed and power. Electric passenger planes should also open the door for cheaper air travel as the majority of the price of a plane ticket is due to the high cost of fuel. Ending our use of fossil fuels will largely depend on whether or not a viable alternative transport method can be developed, and electric engines may just provide the solution to our fuel crisis.

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