On July 18, 2014, Airbus revealed an all-electric prototype plane called the E-Fan 2.0 at the Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough, England. Scheduled to go on sale in 2017, the two-seater plane is designed for short-term flights and will be used primarily for pilot training. However, this new development in aircraft design promises future developments in the company’s work for alternatively-fueled aircraft.The E-Fan 2.0 is a 500-kilogram plane powered by two 30-kilowatt electric motors, which work together to power two ducted fans attached behind the cockpit. The aircraft can fly at speeds reaching 124 miles per hour, with a cruising speed of 99 miles an hour. A smaller third motor attached to the front landing gear allows the plane to reach speeds of around 37 miles per hour while taxiing and landing. Most importantly, the E-Fan 2.0 releases no CO2 emissions and reportedly makes no sound.The plane’s creators report that the weight of the battery was one of the most prominent challenges they faced, as the aeronautical design required around 7 to 10 kilowatts per kilogram in order to be light enough to fly. In comparison, the typical car battery typically gets around 1.5 kilowatts per kilogram. Currently, Airbus has partnered with Kokam, a Korean company: the two have created a power-supply consisting of 120 lithium-ion polymer cells in the wings. Combined, the batteries last for 45 minutes to an hour, with a 15-minute reserve, and can be recharged in around an hour. There is also a backup battery in case of an emergency landing. However, Airbus has not selected a battery for the final version of the E-Fan and is still developing a quick-change mechanism that would allow the cells to be quickly replaced with full-powered cells on the tarmac.
In the past, a 2011 initiative from the European Commission called Flightpath 2050 encouraged the design and implementation of planes like the E-Fan for their environmental benefit. Flightpath 2050 aimed to reduced aircraft CO2 emissions by 75% and reduce engine noise by 65% by the year 2050. The E-Fan 2.0 and other alternative fuel aircraft currently being developed by Airbus appear to meet these parameters, as their hybrid engines would only burn fuel for a small portion of the flight and the electric motors are dramatically quieter than gas-powered planes.
“This is definitely a step in the right direction, you have to start somewhere with everything,” says Eli Pruett, President of Bumblebee Batteries. “It is a slow transition due to all the development involved, however any effort to improve and protect our environment while still utilizing high quality transportation technology should be valued and considered.”
Currently, Airbus is planning to release a four-seat version of the E-Fan, called the E-Fan 4.0, in 2018. This design will include a hybrid engine, but unlike a traditional plane, this engine will be used to power a battery generator rather than the aircraft’s propulsion. However, Airbus is reportedly looking to focus on regional planes with around 80 seats per plane. These larger planes are planned to be built on a hybrid platform called E-Thrust, and are expected to use gas turbine engines for thrust during take-off as well as battery charging. Meanwhile, the smaller planes that have been released will be built under the brand name Voltair. The new technology offered by the E-Fan plane, as well as Airbus’s upcoming projects, offer exciting new possibilities for the aircraft and alternative fuel industries. It has been speculated that the E-Fan may even offer development possibilities for the landing gears and power usages of conventional planes. However, even with the evolution of the electric and hybrid plane, the performance of traditional planes will still likely need to be addressed in order to meet the goals of Flightpath 2050 and other environmental initiatives.