First Hybrid-Electric Airplane Uses 30% Less Fuel

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Originally published on Sustainnovate.

Reportedly the first hybrid airplane that can recharge its batteries took off this week. It is the product of airplane giant Boeing and Cambridge University researchers. The result is an airplane that 30% less fuel than a comparable 100% petrol plane.

“The petrol engine works with the battery-powered one at take-off and climb, when the plane needs extra power, but the electric motor can then switch into generator mode and recharges the batteries, or help the motor in minimising fuel consumption,” The Independent writes.

hybrid_airplaneOf course, hybrid-electric cars have been popular for awhile now, and there are dozens and dozens of models on the market. There are also numerous 100% electric cars on the market. 100% electric planes are a bigger challenge because of the tremendous amount of power needed to get a plane into the air, but there’s a lot of sense to hybrid-electric planes, and I could see them becoming commercial products within the next decade. We now have a pioneer in this realm.

Of course, the big bottleneck to hybridization of planes has been batteries. Batteries have long been too expensive for practical commercial use, but they have been coming down in cost quickly in the past few years.

“Although hybrid cars have been available for more than a decade, what’s been holding back the development of hybrid or fully-electric aircraft until now is battery technology,” said Dr Paul Robertson of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who led the project. “Until recently, they have been too heavy and didn’t have enough energy capacity. But with the advent of improved lithium-polymer batteries, similar to what you’d find in a laptop computer, hybrid aircraft – albeit at a small scale – are now starting to become viable.”

Here’s a video about the news as well:

Reprinted with permission.


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17 thoughts on “First Hybrid-Electric Airplane Uses 30% Less Fuel

  • Airbus industries has already build a pure e airplane, have read it, link came from this website.

    • Yes several individuals and companies have built test electric powered planes. What is different with this effort is that in conjunction with Boeing it can end up being a commercially available product, not needing any special permits or having limitations on where it can be used other than the normal light aircraft restrictions.

      • Any company can make a commercially viable airplane as long as they have the knowhow and a huge amount of money to run it through all the tests the FAA requires to move it from the “experimental” class to commercial. Airbus can just as easily take an e-plane from experimental to commercial.

        • Of course Airbus can spend enough to make an e-plane commercial, but will it then have a good enough performance that they will sell enough of them to recoup the investment?
          It seems doubtful since they aren’t doing it yet.

          • I dunno. What proof do we have that Boeing is going to do it, or that Airbus isn’t? They’re probably both waiting for a tipping point when batteries are cheap enough with enough energy density.

          • Didn’t mean for you to think that I was denigrating Airbus, or to say that Boeing is any better. You compared this with the Airbus e-plane, which as far as I can find out is a experimental BEP (battery electric plane).
            Which ever manufacturer does it first for commercial sales it seems to me to be most likely that they follow the example of the automotive manufacturers and produce hybrid electric planes such as Boeing is helping with here while the BEP’s wait for battery technology to develop to the point of being viable for light aircraft.
            I really have no opinion as to the superiority of either company, but I am glad to see them both working towards methods of making flight possible while using less fuel, and hope that they find a way to do it with just renewable power sources (not just electric but the experimental fuels this project will be trying).
            I have loved flying since my first time as a kid, but the concerns over the heavy resource use of personal flight has caused me to cut back quite a bit over the past couple of decades. Have been hoping for a reasonably priced electric ultra light, but something like described in the article using renewable fuels would be even better as it would make longer trips possible as well as local flights for fun.

  • The most economic gas engine is one that is switched off, so I don’t see why both gas and electric combined would be used on take off AND in flight. Why not; Gas only for take off/climb and electric only for cruising.?

    • It is better explained in the video than the article is that a fuel engine is most economical run at an even RPM. Which can be maintained at cruising altitude but the variations during climb and descent cause the higher fuel usage. The electric assist in this plane makes it possible to run the gas engine at the optimal RPM for fuel savings, but batteries are not yet at the point where electric powered planes are possible with a gas generator as seen in the EREV cars.

      • Makes sense now.

    • Range with just the batteries, probably. Although solar panels on the wings could address some of that.

      From what I gather from watching the video, there is a desire to use this plane to test different sorts of liquid fuels to displace conventional Avgas. If some of those experimental fuels develop unexpected and undesirable characteristics (freeze up in the fuel lines, etc,) the electric motor can be switched on in lifeboat fashion.

  • So, why does it not have a photovoltaic surface, especially the upper surfaces of the wings?

    • It would cost a lot of money to get custom-made lightweight panels adhered to the wings and it would only add a minute or two of flight time if the plane was flying during the day. This is just a proof of concept built at a university, so I don’t think they have that kind of money.

  • It would be great if they ripped off the prius powertrain and allowed the gas engine to run at full-throttle at about 2000 rpm while cruising with the electric motor stepping up the prop speed to the desired level. Since space is at a premium, especially in the little airframe they used, maybe an Atkinson Cycle engine wouldn’t fit, but that would be cool to see as well.

    • My guess is the Prius system wouldn’t work as well because planes do very little regenerative braking while in the air. They needed a simpler system where all the input to the battery comes from the gas engine. Presumably, this is a plug-in hybrid so the power used during ascent is provided by charging it on the ground. Then when they’re in the air they can skim enough power off the gas engine to recharge the batteries so it can to compensate for minor fluctuations, altitude changes, failures, and the like.

  • There is already a solar powered airplane, a two seats, which has all wings and upper surfaces covered with solar panes.

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