It could be the biggest revolution in the aviation industry since the invention of the jet engine, but there are still many hurdles for electric passenger planes to take to the skies.
What the Concorde achieved among fuel-guzzling types of aircraft, namely being the most beautiful aircraft ever, could be replicated by an electric aircraft named Alice in the age of battery-powered flying machines. The electric passenger plane completed its maiden voyage on September 27, 2022, at Moses Lake Airport in the state of Washington, United States.
Alice is so far the only passenger aircraft developed from scratch that can fly on battery power. It was designed by Aviation, a company founded in Israel and now based in the US Pacific Northwest.
The nine-seater aircraft has a very attractive appearance. Its aesthetic design, however, seeks purely deliberately to optimize its flight characteristics. It is no longer the typical tube with fins and tail attached, but rather looks like a skinny whale with a sharply cut nose that flattens down and a fuselage that tapers at the back.
The shape of the airframe itself creates extra lift to lift the massive weight of the batteries off the ground. In the T-shaped tail, two Magni650 electric motors are installed, producing 644 kilowatts (KW) each, allowing a claimed cruising speed of 407 kilometers per hour (252 mph).
Heavy Loads and Filling Order Books
But electric flight’s biggest problem also holds Alice back: Batteries are too bulky, too heavy, and don’t provide enough energy for efficient, extended trips.
After its successful first flight – a journey of no more than eight minutes – the company drastically reduced Alice’s expected travel range from 815 kilometers (506 miles) to 445 kilometers. This means that electric aircraft can only be developed in niche markets, but they are still in demand, says Björn Nagel.
“Flying purely electric is very sexy, as it has a very high degree of efficiency close to 90% if you charge the batteries only with wind energy,” the director of the Institute of System Architecture at the German Aerospace Center, DLR, in Hamburg. DW said.
The first Alice deliveries to customers are planned for 2027, “as battery technology evolves in the way we expect it to,” Aviation CEO Gregory Davis said, adding that certification of the plane also needs to be done according to plan. .
Already, there are a number of early adopters: Cape Air of the northeastern US, which was a launch customer, has committed to buying 75 Alice planes. Charterer GlobalX Airlines wants 50, while Deutsche Post announced orders for 12 of the plane’s cargo version for its DHL subsidiary.
There is also a German passenger airline on the order book, Evia Aero — a startup and “viable regional airline” from Bremen, which has signed a letter of intent to buy 25 planes. In late 2022, Eviation’s first major passenger airline customer, Air New Zealand, signed options for 23 electric aircraft.
All-electric aircraft propulsion is also the focus of the aviation research complex in Munich, where, for example, aerospace giant Airbus is testing a variety of hybrid solutions for air taxis and other planes at its Ottobrunn facility.
Not far from there, Rolls-Royce Electrical is “pioneering sustainable electric aircraft technology to power tomorrow’s urban and regional air mobility markets.”
The British aerospace company’s test lab is well secured behind thick steel doors, where a Rolls-Royce RRP200D prototype is currently being built. The airplane engine is expected to unleash the biggest revolution in propulsion since the invention of the jet engine in 1937.
Is there an aviation revolution?
The motor itself isn’t really impressive – a metal ring about the size of a wagon wheel with a sort of five-arm coil spinning inside the wheel. This is the rotor with a magnet and bearings, and it shows an incredible degree of minimalism, compared to the complex monsters of combustion airplane engines, which consist of about 18,000 moving parts. In an electric airplane engine, there are only 18 moving parts, underscoring the dramatic change that Rolls-Royce and the aviation industry are working on.
The quest for a viable battery-powered aircraft has come a long way, but existing model airplanes are still far from being capable of handling day-to-day flight operations. Unlike the automotive industry, it is still impossible to fuel aircraft with preferentially green power to meet the industry’s ambitious goal of more climate-friendly flights by 2035.
At Rolls-Royce, however, engineers are more optimistic. From 2026, they hope to supply two of the RRP200D engines to Norwegian regional company Wideroe, which wants to operate a nine-seat Italian-made propeller aircraft called the Tecnam P-Volt on scheduled flights.
“If successful, the engine will only hum slightly,” said Stefan Breunig, chief strategy officer at Rolls-Royce Electrical, adding that they are currently testing a 2.5 megawatt generator that is supposed to power larger regional jets with up to 50 seats .
Persistent battery problems
Initially, Tecnam’s P-Volt light electric aircraft will not be able to fly distances greater than 150 kilometers with a fully charged battery, including a mandatory 30-minute power reserve. The range could be sufficient to serve some short-haul routes in Norway, but is of little use elsewhere.
“I’m skeptical of electric flights because of range limitations,” says Lars Enghardt, director of DLR’s Electric Aviation Propulsion Institute in Cottbus, Germany. He told DW that they don’t see “batteries with significantly increased energy density in the near future.”
The range limitations of all-electric propulsion, he said, would provide limited opportunities in niche markets such as Norway. But on longer routes with larger aircraft, hybrid-electric prototypes could be the way to go.
But Enghardt’s skeptical outlook on electric flight isn’t stopping Rolls-Royce Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini, who said the jet engine maker is “serious” about electric flight. “We will find useful applications for it, step by step,” the Italian, who once worked at Airbus, told DW.
By 2030, he sees great opportunities emerging. “We will see fully electric aircraft of up to 30 seats flying… for us, Norway will be the absolute pioneer in Europe.”