For some years now, there’s been a new technological race in the aeronautic world: electrification. This race reminds us of the years when young idealists and start-up companies designed and built planes to beat speed and distance records, which helped to improve the aeronautical industry.
The difference with that golden era is that these days, when everything seems to have been invented in the aviation industry, the goal now is to fly with zero emissions.
Another difference is the players involved in this race; there are big companies working on electric planes, and even small companies are backed up by large companies or huge investment funds.
One of these players is Rolls-Royce. This British company, which started as a luxury-car manufacturer, got involved in the aeronautics world when, in 1914, it started to build engines for airplanes to help Great Britain during WWI.
That was the start of a new division of Rolls-Royce created to build and design airplane engines. The company, which was involved in the mid-20s and early 30s technological race, broke many records, like when a seaplane powered by an ‘R’ engine set a new speed world record.
In 1931 it reached a speed of over 400 mph, winning the International Schneider Trophy. Another famous engine by Rolls-Royce was the mighty Merlin, which brought many technical innovations and was used as the powerplant for many great airplanes, including the Hurricane and the Spitfire.
Rolls-Royce continued developing airplane engines after WWII and is currently the second-largest aircraft engine manufacturer in the world.
It seems that Rolls-Royce executives foresaw that electrification was coming fast and strong, and they decided to take the first step. In 2019, backed up by the British Government, the company started working on an experimental electric plane called “Spirit of Innovation”.
\The plane resembles the pre-WW2 racing aircraft; it looks sleek and fast. Only two months after the plane made its maiden flight and after flying a few hours, the aircraft broke three all-electric airplanes’ world records.
The data was submitted to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the entity that controls and certifies world aeronautical and astronautical records.
The aircraft reached 555.9 km/h or 345.4 mph in 3 kilometers, this is 342.86 km/h or 213.4 mph faster than the previous record set by the all-electric Siemens eAircraft.
The plane also broke the climbing speed record, reaching an altitude of 3km in 202 seconds, a minute faster than its predecessor.
The third record set by the “Spirit of Innovation” was the world speed record for an all-electric plane at 623km/h or 387.4mph.
The plane uses liquid-cooled Lithium-ion batteries that power a 400kW (500+ HP) powerplant developed by UK companies Electroflight and Yasa. The plane has three batteries and it can safely land using only one battery in case of emergency.
This breakthrough is an important step towards zero emissions airplanes; however, it will take a lot of time, paperwork, and tests until we can see full-electric jetliners in the sky.
Among other projects addressing the same goal, there is a Canada-based company called Harbour Air. It is a small regional seaplane airline working to convert its fleet into full-electric planes.
It is developing what they call the “world’s first commercial electric airplane”, a six-passenger DHC-2. The plane was converted to use an electric engine and, in partnership with some technology companies like magnixX, H55, and Solar Impulse, they are running a project to homologate and convert their fleet into fully electric-powered planes called eBeaver.
Greg McDougall, founder and CEO of Harbour Air, thinks that retrofitting proven airplanes with electric engines is easier, less time-consuming, and requires fewer certifications than creating new aircraft from scratch.
That’s why he is optimistic about getting the eBeaver certified for commercial flights for 2022, becoming the first fully electric commercial airline in the world.
It’s impossible to have zero emissions flights worldwide in the blink of an eye, but milestones like the “Spirit of Innovation”, and electrifying small planes like the Cessnas used for flight lessons, and small fleets like Harbour Air, will help to reduce airplane’s carbon footprint and gradually decarbonize air transport.
It is uncertain when we will have zero emissions flights worldwide. However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) plans to reduce the use of mineral fuels by 65%. Who knows; at the speed technology is moving these days, the industry may reach that goal sooner than expected.