Electric aircraft promise to revolutionize the aviation industry, offering greener and more sustainable flights. However, what are the challenges they face on their way to mass adoption that is happening, for example, with electric cars?
Electric aircraft have long been a futuristic vision, promising to revolutionize aviation by reducing carbon emissions and operating costs.
Despite advances in battery technology, the increasingly common presence of electric cars and growing environmental awareness, Electric airplanes are not yet a reality that can be seen in the skies commercially.
The truth is that this paradox raises a number of problems and major obstacles that must be overcome before electric aircraft can really take off on a large scale.
“Electric aircraft offer a potential positive environmental impact that cannot be overlooked. The aviation industry is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and its electrification could contribute to reducing them,” he explains. Computer Today Andrea Suárez, specialized in Development and Social Impact.
One by one, these are the great challenges that prevent large-scale electric aviation
Lithium-ion batteries, the most common in electric aviation, have a limited energy density. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Lithium-ion batteries have an energy density of about 250 Wh/kg, while kerosene, used in combustion aircraft, has an energy density of about 12,000 Wh/kg.
This means that lithium-ion batteries have a much lower energy storage capacity compared to kerosene. “A greater amount of energy is needed to keep them in the air during long flights. This has led, until now, to electric airplanes to be more suitable for short flights,” comments the expert.
Due to the limitations of the batteries themselves, electric planes often have limited flight range. For example, the “Alice” of the Israeli company Eviation Aircraft, one of the most advanced electric aircraft, has a range of around 402 kilometers, which is insufficient for long-distance flights.
Recharging the batteries of electric airplanes is another big problem, since it takes much longer than filling the fuel tank of a conventional airplane. While refueling with kerosene can be completed in less than an hour, recharging batteries can take several hours or more, depending on charging capacity and available infrastructure.
“Currently, airports are designed primarily for combustion aircraft, which means that large investments would be required to adapt them to the needs of electric aircraft. In addition, electric charging infrastructure must also be developed and expanded to meet charging demand. “adds Andrea Suárez.
In relation to this last point, to all this we must add that according to data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the implementation of fast charging infrastructure is a truly complex challenge, although key for electric aviation, and it is required a huge investment to establish charging stations in airports around the world.
Although electric aircraft are expected to have lower long-term operating costs due to the efficiency of electric motors, initial development and procurement costs are considerably higher. According to a report by the consulting firm Roland Bergerelectric airplanes can be up to 50% more expensive than conventional airplanes.
Meanwhile, here come hybrid planes and new fuels
Although electric airplanes, despite existing, must still overcome all these major problems for large-scale commercial inclusion, Hybrid airplanes could be one solution.
These combine the power of fuels with the efficiency of electric propulsion. Some of them operate without batteries and use electric propulsion systems to improve thrust efficiency, thus reducing the need for fuel.
Hybrid electric aircraft that incorporate batteries are also being developed. These can provide additional power in specific situations, such as enabling greener takeoffs and landings to reduce emissions near airports.
However, electric planes are not the only way to address aviation’s carbon footprint. The search for alternative fuels is also underway, including biofuels and hydrogen.
Biofuels, which are obtained from plants or algae, made their debut on commercial flights in 2008. Although they are not yet widely adopted and also emit CO₂, they do not require major reconfiguration of aircraft or airport infrastructure.
With all this, Electric planes, although promising, still face major obstacles. “We see electric aviation as a matter of time,” explains Chris Essex, head of fleet and purchasing at EasyJet, Europe’s second largest low-cost airline by number of passengers.
“As more people understand the environmental and economic benefits of electric aviation, they are more likely to support its development and adoption,” concludes the expert.