Thursday, May 25, 2017

All-Electric Air Travel Is Not an Impossible Dream


A brief 2015 video report from the WSJ about the Airbus all-electric airplane, the E-Fan. Airbus is not the only company doing this. Go here for an interesting video about Pipistrel's electric plane.

by Gaius Publius

A brief follow-up to our recent piece on the coming death of Big Oil as a business (see "The Dying Fossil Fuel Industry"). One argument against the demise of Big Oil is that "there will always be a need for oil, somewhere." The most often-used examples for "somewhere" are in the global transportation industries — air travel and international shipping.

We've looked at these industries before and agreed that they do represent a problem. For example, from a 2015 piece: "Independent of the [Paris Agreement] pledges of the various nations — which are proving to be entirely inadequate to meeting even the modest goals of the U.N. — pledges by nations aren't the entire solution. In fact, the pledges by a number of nations would be entirely wiped out by the emissions of two international industries. These are international shipping and international air travel."

Take the Canadian climate pledge, for example. Canada has promised to cut its pollution by 30% below 2005 levels (a peak year) by 2030, and by 16% below the benchmark year of 1990, from 690 MtCO2e to 579 MtCO2e (megatons of CO2-equivalent emissions). Over the same period, 1990 to 2030, international aviation and international maritime emissions are expected to more than triple in a business-as-usual scenario, for a combined increase in emissions that's more than ten times the promised emissions decrease from Canada (pdf, page 42).

When most people think about how to cut global emissions to zero, that's were they get stuck, with an unsolvable problem when it comes to international travel and shipping. Those who don't get stuck there posit a world of less capitalism, less "buying for the sake of buying" — which is needed to feed the capitalists' constant need to "sell for the sake of selling." As admirable as that sounds as a goal, it also sounds impossible to achieve, at least voluntarily. Besides, less capitalism, defined as production of consumer goods, would certainly require less global shipping, but wouldn't solve the problem of global air travel.

Can these two industries, international maritime and international aviation, every be freed from the grip of fossil fuels?

All-Electric Planes Are Here Today

It turns out that all-electric airplanes are not that far from the horizon, and what works for air travel could well be adapted to shipping, given the right advances in energy storage. Consider this, from Scientific American in 2014:
"Impossible" Electric Airplane Takes Flight

The Berlin Air Show witnessed a silent, clean test flight by Airbus's E-Fan two-seater aircraft, which is entirely propelled by electricity

...The fully electric E-Fan aircraft, engineered by Airbus Group, made one of its first public demonstrations here last week following it's first-ever flight in France on March 11.

The novel two-seater aircraft was designed from the outset for electrical propulsion, from its energy management system to safety features. In developing this technology, Airbus aims to one day reduce the aerospace industry's carbon dioxide emissions by an order of magnitude.

"It's a very different way of flying," said Jean Botti, chief technical and innovation officer at Airbus Group, "absolutely no noise, no emissions."

A series of lithium-ion batteries fitted into the wings of the plane are the sole power source for the E-Fan's two 30-kilowatt electric motors. A 6 kW electric motor in the main wheel provides extra power during acceleration and taxiing to reduce electrical power consumption on the ground.
The obvious problem is range. The 2014 version described above had a one-hour range, which means it didn't stray far from the airport. The 2015 version of the same plane (see video above) performed a Channel crossing.

The plan, though, is ambitious: "Airbus will make a next-generation two-seater electric plane, set for launch in 2017, and a four-seater electric plane with a gas-powered range extender, set for launch in 2019."
These advances are steppingstones toward realizing Flight Path 2050, the European Union's aggressive goal to reduce the aviation sector's nitrous oxide emissions by 90 percent, noise pollution by 65 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 75 percent by 2050.
What's holding these projects back is the current pace of advancement in battery technology. But changes are coming faster and faster, spurred by both economic and environmental motivation. (Imagine the payoff to the inventor who develops a reliable, light-weight, quick-charge, slow-drain battery cell. Imagine how many inventors, investors, and companies are looking for it — the battery and the payoff.)

In the meantime, it's not hard to imagine the day when air travel will be freed from the need to pollute in order to operate. When that day comes, one more barrier to fossil-free living will fall.


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At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's also the fairly close to carbon neutral method of burning bio-diesel type fuels derived from algae. The algae use CO2 to create the bio-oils that are then burned for power.

The big problem with the battery/electric mode of flight is the amount of thrust required to get an airliner off the ground, achieve speeds much faster than freeways and range. Without a 2-order-of-magnitude increase in efficiency of battery tech, you can't even begin to design anything viable.

You CAN, however, build very high-speed rail that is all electric, needs all but zero battery storage, can use sustainable electricity sources and can move as many people as AND more freight than air. And they can be built using current tech, are at least as long-lived as air, and their speeds can be up to about half of air, which makes it viable for even trans-continental travel.

The very first thing a society that actually gave a flying fuck about CO2 would do is to replace and augment air with HS rail. It could be done now, put millions to work in middle-class jobs, save a shitload of fossil fuels and people might just like it a lot more than those sardine tubes we have to wedge ourselves into.

But we don't give a flying fuck about any of the benefits. In fact, almost all benefits are in opposition to the goals of the money that determines all policy. And people don't count.

At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is fascinating-the video on the airbus electric plane-very cool. It's good to know that amidst the mess we are in, some people just continue to try to create things that uplift everybody.

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At 3:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Capitalism is NOT "defined as production of consumer goods."

Capitalism is the system by which profits from the sale of products are collected, assigned and distributed by a small number (as in "oligarchy") of managerial "owners" of the companies that do the producing. In addition, these oligarchs make the decisions about what and how much is made.

This as opposed to the same privilege, and source of power being exercised by the people who do the work to make the products sold, as in socialism.

The idea of adopting socialism is that workers are well more likely to think beyond immediate company profits and plans toward their effects on their county, and the world, as it relates to the future of their familial successors. There is structural NO restriction on consumer goods. Perpetual war making, and its inevitable creation of more enemies, would likely be seen as an unjustifiable, if proven, profit center.

To the extent that capitalism has brainwashed the entire population of the globe to think that the highest activity of humans is to consume more tomorrow than today, is the extent to which that population has also been propagandized to hold in utter contempt the freedom of worker solidarity, and its concomitant power, in lieu of obedience, dependence, fear and ultimate self-destruction that are the only items on the current workers' menu.

If the inherent assumptions and attitudes of capitalism are impossible to jettison, as GP has claimed, then it will also be utterly impossible to effectively combat climate change, electric airplanes or not.

John Puma

At 7:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fine comment by JP.

Capitalism relies on an inbred limbic reflex, greed. All forms of altruism relies upon the LEARNED reflex, compassion. For compassion to overcome the limbic, humankind must first LEARN it and then use reason in order to apply their better learned urges.

The world is rapidly becoming bereft of compassion.

Religion, also reliant upon limbic reflexes, means that humankind can never control their own numbers. Capitalism will reign over altruism which means lethal planetary concerns will never be addressed.

ergo, we die. period.

electric planes are reflective of the micro-minority of humans who are still curious and the micro-micro-minority of them who have means to play around with ideas.

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Gaius Publius said...

Besides, less capitalism, defined as production of consumer goods..."

I missed a qualification that I thought would be understood. Of course capitalism isn't just about consumer goods, or even about consumer goods at all, which these days is just a by-product, in the same way that oil extraction is a by-product. (The Kochs don't drill for oil, they drill for money.)

So the qualification I thought would be understood, but wasn't: "Besides, less capitalism, defined for the purposes of this discussion as production of consumer goods..."



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