Can hydrogen deliver electric planes?

You have certainly heard about hydrogen cars, perhaps also ships, and I’ve covered a good range of other vehicles in this blog!

Aeroplanes are a very obvious omission – the challenges are much greater due to the nature of the vehicle. If these challenges can be cracked, the rewards will not be insubstantial. Aviation contributes about 2% of human-originated carbon emissions every year.

There are a few power options.

Lithium ion batteries are too heavy and don’t last long enough. This might be easier to manage for cars but planes need to travel further and can’t afford to run out of power in the middle of the sky.

Solar power is not yet powerful enough and use is limited to when the sun is shining –no night flights!

Power cables and power beaming both require a ground-based power source.

Ultra capacitors do not have enough storage.

Hydrogen fuel cells seem to be the best option. They’re on board, lighter, last longer, and usable any time.

So, with all the above in mind, here are some electric aviation projects that you might want to keep an eye on. All of them use lithium ion batteries or are hybrids. All of them could stand to benefit from a better source of power such as hydrogen.

Airbus

There are two particularly interesting projects from Airbus. The first is “Vahana”, from their Silicon Valley site. It’s a drone, but big, and it’s designed to move either cargo or a human passenger over small distances.

This November the team announced that it would begin test flights.

Airbus is also working on "CityAirbus". It’s similar to Vahana – it will be an automated drone of sorts with vertical take-off and landing capabilities – but it will carry up to four passengers. Again, it will fly over short distances, ideally within a city, as the name suggests. It will test flight in 2018.

The goal for Airbus is eventually to create an electric airliner. Apparently a 2MW craft is in the works but this is considerably way off the approximate 16MW (21,500 horsepower) of an Airbus a320 jet engine.

Boeing

So, what are Airbus rivals Boeing up to? It seems they have their eye on electric airliners too and might be getting there faster.

Boeing has partnered up with JetBlue Technology Ventures to create the hybrid-electric Zunum Aero.

Initially it will be able to carry 12 passengers a distance of just over 1,100km or 700 miles, at speeds of 550kmph or 340mph. If it helps imagine, the Zunum Aero has a theoretical flight range from London to Barcelona, or Prague, or Milan, but it might take about 30% longer assuming full speed all the way.

It’s small for now but the most interesting thing about Zunum Aero is that Boeing claims it is being built with scaling in mind.

Eviation Aircraft

Eviation is targeting a similar range to the Zunum Aero but intends to be fully electric. The startup, from Israel, has designed a 9 passenger, automated craft, called “Alice”, which will fly up to 965km or 600 miles.

NASA X-57 Maxwell

Not to be outdone, NASA has also been working on a fully electric aircraft, the X-57 or “Maxwell”. It’s a single-seater with a modest cruising speed of approx 275kmph or 170mph. It is the first of a series of larger craft that are being developed by the $790m New Aviation Horizons initiative [PDF link], a 10 year project to replace fossil fuel planes with greener alternatives.

Wright Electric and easyJet

Also notable is the partnership announced in September this year between Wright Electric and the low-budget airline, easyJet.

Their project is quite ambitious – they intend to create an electric airliner seating between 120 and 186 passengers with a range of 540km or 335 miles. That would be enough to fly between London and Paris or New York and Boston.