Between illusion and reality: electric aircraft, far from becoming the future of aviation. What is the main impediment?

The first electric aircraft was certified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) almost four years ago, with the forecast that this will lead to the emergence of other environmentally friendly aircraft as a method of reducing emissions during flight , Politico reports.

Electric airplanes would require a real technological revolution. Photo: profimedia (Archive)

However, this did not happen.

The two-seater Pipistrel Velis Electro is the only electric aircraft certified by EASA. This aircraft is primarily used for pilot training.

Currently, the European Parliament is trying to step in, hoping to jumpstart this dying sector. In this sense, the Parliament approved on Tuesday, January 16, a non-binding resolution that appreciates that electric aircraft are an option for a “cleaner, faster and more convenient air transport“.

The objective is to help the European Union meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 90% by 2050; aviation being responsible for around 2% of global CO2 emissions.

But skeptics point to the technological hurdles facing electric aircraft. For now, the main initiative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in aviation has been the development of synthetic e-fuels – made from captured carbon and hydrogen generated from green energy – even though this is still expensive and only available in small quantities.

The advantage of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) is that if they can be produced in large quantities, current jet engine technology could continue to be used. This is why the EU mandates increased use of these fuels in recently adopted legislation.

But electric airplanes would require a real technological revolution, as batteries are heavy and much less efficient in terms of the amount of energy than kerosene.

“The Magic Solution”

In my view, the main impediment is still the power source: current batteries are too heavy for the amount of power they provide. This means that, for now, electric propulsion is only viable for small aircraft with limited range” said Sophie Armanini, professor of eAviation at the Technical University of Munich.

However, the Parliament's resolution urges the Commission “sidentify the flight routes that are most suitable for full electrification” and “to launch specific calls to finance projects to support electrification” aviation sector. All this in addition to creating “a political framework” to encourage electric aircraft technologies.

Karima Delli, a member of the European Parliament, said the resolution contained “unrealistic statements” which gives the impression that electric planes are “the magic solution to reducing carbon emissions in the aviation sector“.

But the resolution is not entirely rosy. Although it was noted that “significant potential” reduction of CO2 emissions by electric aircraft, the non-binding report also pointed to limitations that “affects the range, load capacity and overall efficiency of electric aircraft“.

The report also states that zero-emission aircraft could be a viable alternative to conventionally fueled aircraft for “short and medium-haul flight operations“.

An example is provided by Norway, which aims to operate all short- and medium-haul flights with electric aircraft by 2040.

But for that to happen, aircraft manufacturers must produce models that meet regulatory standards.

The certification itself is a challenge in that the regulations for electric aircraft are still being developedArmanini stated.The certification process is slow even for conventional aircraft, in part because safety is so crucial in this sector, so you can imagine how slow the process is when the regulations are incomplete or unverified, and we are dealing, essentially with a new category of aircraft“, she added.

Other challenges

When the Slovenian-made Pipistrel was certified on 10 June 2020, EASA's then-Executive Director Patrick Ky estimated that its certification “it certainly won't be the last“.

Although there are companies – many of them startups – trying to design electric planes, getting them approved is difficult.

“EASA has received several applications for other electric aircraft, from large and small conventional aircraft to vertical take-off and landing electric aircraft that are hybrid, battery electric or fuel cell“, said David Solar, Head of General Aviation and Vertical Takeoff and Landing at EASA.

“All these projects – around 10 – are in various stages of the certification process“, but “EASA is not in a position to share current status or predict future results“because “the certification process is a proprietary matterSolar added.

However, MEPs are optimistic about the introduction of electric aircraft.

Small electric test aircraft with up to nine seats are already flying in various regions of the EU”it is stated in another point of the resolution, while “electric aircraft up to 30 seats are planned for the late 2020s, and regional aircraft for the 2030s“.

According to a study by the Arctic University of Norway, the main problem lies in the fact that the development of electric aviation is “extremely addictive” of three areas: battery technology, electric motor technology and an efficient integrated design technology of the aircraft structure and propulsion. All these “is” in the early stages of research, which brings a high degree of uncertainty to the realization of feasible electric air travel and limits the basis of futuristic electric aircraft concepts to guesswork.

The overall objective

However, joint ventures made up of major players, such as Airbus and Rolls Royce or Nasa and Boeing, are evaluating the potential of electric or hybrid aircraft and investing money in their research and development.

But it's not just about range and emissions. Airplanes face the most stringent regulations of all forms of transportation, because in the event of a malfunction, they won't just stop, they'll crash.

This implies an additional check on the safety of the batteries, especially with regard to excessive heating.

The safety issues known in conventional aviation are generally present in electric aviation as wellă”, with obvious exceptions, considering “the differences related to the type of propulsion“, said Frank Steffens, Head of Environment and Propulsion Systems at EASA.

Some safety aspects are specific to electric aviation, for which safety and reliability objectives are defined. The overall goal is for this technology to be at least as safe as traditional propulsion systems based on piston or turbine engines“, he stated.