Batteries have always been a weighty issue in holding back electric flight. If we filled an A320 with the best batteries available on the market today, without any passengers or fuel, it would only be able to fly for 10 minutes.
This means every aspect of getting aircraft up into the sky with anything other than standard carbon-based fuels needs a fundamental rethink. Hybrid-electric propulsion technologies provide the springboard for next-generation flight and our aim is to fly a 100-seater plane for 1,000km by 2030.
This will require massive and rapid innovation from where we are today. Innovations that can help us make these leaps forward are brought to life by our demonstrators – a key stage in showing outline feasibility on different technologies and factors.
Energy generation and storage can be approached in many ways. For example, our recent demonstrator tested integrated fuel cell applications in e-aircraft. The revolutionary idea is that the fuel cells’ direct current output is transferred directly to the motor coils, thus driving the fan blades directly without heavy wiring, bus bars, converters, or batteries. This means less weight, less complexity and greater flexibility in design.
Adapting the weight of the aircraft is also a vector. The use of superconductors in cables, motors and generators is an efficient and lightweight breakthrough for electric flight. These materials, which conduct electricity without any resistance, could significantly reduce the size and weight of electrical distribution systems compared to today’s technology.
Another promising option is the use of high-temperature superconductors, which exhibit the same properties of zero electrical resistance but at much higher temperatures. Thus, less energy is required for cooling – helping to meet the aviation industry’s lightweight and performance requirements.
Next-generation electric aviation applications could also use a cryogenic fuel supply to produce these low temperatures. The fuel supply of next-generation aircraft could even serve two purposes: powering the engines and acting as a coolant for the superconductive wiring.
Other future ideas such as solar power and the harvesting of passenger body heat may seem far out, but given that it was once thought that nothing heavier than air could ever fly, who is to say what’s off the table?