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Thursday, 2 September 2010


Most electric aeroplanes tend to look like this. Make no mistake, the achievements of electric aero researchers are impressive. But the results always tend to look a bit fiddly and - both more importantly and more understandably - lightweight.

That example (Helios) is solar powered. Sunlight has a density of about 1 Kw per square meter, and conversion efficiencies don't get much above 30%. This means that you don't have a lot of power to spare, given a reasonable wing area. That is why the plane looks like it does.

The obvious solution - replace the sun with batteries - stumbles because batteries don't give a lot of power either. Worse, they are heavy.

Suppose we want to carry 300 people like this:

The source of power here (oil) has a specific energy of about 45 megajoules per kilogram. But the battery in your car only has about 0.15 megajoules per kilogram.

However, the battery in your car is 100-year-old technology. The specific energy of batteries has been increasing, and increasing more rapidly in recent years. The best we have today (lithium ion nanowire) gives about 2.5 megajoules per kilogram.

And batteries don't have to get to the energy density of oil to compete in aircraft propulsion. This is because electric motors are much more efficient than gas turbines. Typically, you can't get more than about 40% out of a gas turbine, but you can easily get 80% from an electric motor.

So when batteries get to ten times the energy density of the best now, it will start to make sense to power aircraft with them. And with the rate of progress in battery development that will probably take less time than most would imagine.

But there is a research gap. As far as I can find out, no one is trying to develop an electric aircraft turbine for passenger aircraft. Given the lead times for this sort of technology, this seems short-sighted to me. We are in danger of having the batteries for planes, and then having to take ten years to make engines to go with them. Engine development doesn't need to have the batteries available, as all the testing can be done on the ground.

A final point. At half the energy consumption of an equivalent gas turbine, an electric turbine will generate half the heat. This will have to be got rid of in the airflow, where it can be put to good use expanding the air and generating extra thrust.

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