Flying cars and electric planes. Why is the “Back to the Future” vision of personal electric transportation unrealized in the year 2023? But seriously. Electric commercial jets would save the world from the United Nations’ prediction that CO2 emissions from airplanes will triple by 2050. The New York Times says that commercial air travel accounts for 3% to 4% of total U.S. emissions, but the impact is much bigger than that. The problem is that demand for air travel is outpacing airline efforts to reduce emissions and improve efficiency. Enter the electric jet. Or is that even possible?
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Why electric jets haven’t landed just yet
The problem with electric jets is that the power of current electric motors and capacity of batteries hasn’t caught up in efficiency to the enormous size and weight of these airborne megabuses. To make an electric jet for a commercial flight, you would need a much bigger motor and battery than needed for an electric car. Even those size of motors have just caught up in efficiency with the bare minimum of what drivers need in terms of range and power for a personal vehicle.
Related: New all-electric Canadian train-plane is faster than a jet
The World Economic Forum says that a popular jet, the Boeing 747, “seating some 400 to 600 passengers, needs an estimated 90 megawatts for takeoff. That’s 90,000 kilowatts…. 90 megawatts is equivalent to 4.4 million of today’s laptop batteries.” Obviously 4.4. million laptop batteries couldn’t even fit on a 747 as cargo.
Drones are the birthplace of electric planes
Drones, or miniature autonomous electric helicopters, are the beginning stage of all-electric flying vehicles. They’re light, easy to pilot and are already in use as first responders to factory fires. They are also used as transport around airfields and industrial complexes to help transport needed goods and parts where they’re needed. According to WIRED, Air Canada has ordered 30 drones from Heart Aerospace. This type of small purchase of electric drone or mini plane is happening all over the world. Here’s what it would take to bridge the gap and take the industry from drones to electric full-size jets.
Flying vehicles have to deal with the drag of the wind and the lift of the airplane wing, at least in the case of a fixed wing aircraft. In order to overcome these forces as well as gravity in the mix, a plane has to have some kind of motor for thrust.
A smaller aircraft doesn’t need as much power as a huge airliner, but that result is surprisingly non-linear. Therefore, it is much easier to produce small electric planes than large ones, but the transition has begun on the smaller end of the market with drones and tiny one-person planes. A Cessna 172 seats four people. If your Boeing 747 conservatively were seating 400 passengers, that’s 100 times the number of passenger weight, but over 1,000 times (1147.5) the horsepower required for the much larger jet. You can see the problem.
Alternative fuel jets might help
Could alternative fuel airplanes help bridge the gap to electric planes? Possibly, but like on the ground vehicles, this is a stopgap measure to get to an all-electric future. One day, we will look back and wonder how we dilly dallied around in alternative fuels for so long rather than put development money into much simpler but more powerful electric motors. Hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic jet fuel could decarbonize the airline industry and pilot programs have begun in Europe with Airbus planning to build a zero-emissions aircraft by 2035.
Boeing is working on efficiency and wants to ensure its jets can run on “sustainable” jet fuel made from waste and biomass. Sustainable aviation fuelmaker Neste U.S. President Jeremy Baines says the alternative fuel industry for planes is niche but growing rapidly, anticipating a rapid build-up of production in the coming year of 15-fold. This will mean from 35 million gallons of renewable aviation fuel today to 515 million target gallons annually by the end of 2023. That’s enough fuel for 40,000 flights between New York and London, over a year’s worth of travel between those two cities pre-pandemic.
However, the U.S. airlines use over 18 billion gallons of fuel in 2019 and the U.S. consumes 100 billion gallons of petroleum products overall annually. U.S. consulting firm IHS Markit estimates that sustainable jet fuel will make up 15 percent of all jet fuel by 2050.
Renewable jet fuel can reduce carbon emissions by 30% to 50% compared with conventional jet fuel, according to Daniel Evans, global head of refining and marketing at IHS Markit, but this can contribute to deforestation from farming raw materials or contribute to competition in demand that pushes up prices of food crops. The ideal would be to produce all alternative fuels from non-food crops, do so in a sustainable way, and only use sustainable fuels as a bridge to an all-electric future. The road map is there, but demand is so high the targets are hard to reach with current technology.
Hydrogen may contribute to this alternative fuel future, but the public still retains images of the Hindenburg hydrogen blimp going down in flames over a century ago. Hydrogen is a pressurized and highly flammable fuel. It also costs two to three times as much as conventional fuel, making it more of a niche solution.
Meanwhile, world governments support these technologies to help them become more viable and efficient. The U.S. offers renewable jet fuel producers just a $1/gallon subsidy under existing federal tax credits for biodiesel. A bill introduced in early 2023 in the House could provide a tax credit starting at $1.50 per gallon. Or a tax on carbon emissions could boost alternative fuels to be more competitive against conventional jet fuel. But the government has more power to regulate out old technologies for the sake of the climate than to ensure particular technologies succeed in replacing them.
Could airlines offset carbon instead?
Carbon offsets are when companies pay a third party to plant trees or take other action that helps restore the climate in some way to offset damage or emissions. But that can lead to greenwashing or more problems with people believing that offsetting damage somehow makes it disappear.
What we really need is money invested in technologies that can improve electric motors, battery capacity and weight and the technology that makes airplanes more aerodynamic or efficient and lightweight themselves. With a combination of improved technologies for electric planes, plus a roadmap that goes through alternative fuels but doesn’t park there, the future for electric jets actually looks pretty good. Inevitable even.
Imagine: 70,000 horsepower being no big deal for an EV that flies. It’s coming. It’s going to look so much better than a “Back to the Future” DeLorean or flying skateboard. Let’s make it happen by supporting renewable energy, choosing clean travel alternatives and investing in companies that are building a clean future for the skies.
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