The Intertubes are all afire with news of new research demonstrating a new zero emission plasma propulsion system for jets that runs only on electricity. It may take a little while for something that new to leap the Valley of Death from the laboratory into your friendly neighborhood jet. Meanwhile let’s take a look at some other decarbonization developments going on here and now in the world of flight as the aviation industry crawls out of its COVID-19 hole.
Electricity + Biofuel For Low Carbon Flight
First up in the airborne electricity area is a newly unveiled family of low carbon aircraft called Cassio, from the startup VoltAero. The plan is to introduce Cassio (pictured above) in 4-, 6-, and 10-seat variations that meet EASA CS23 certification in the single-engine, general aviation category. However, there is a lot more going on under the hood than “single” would suggest.
Here’s the rundown from VoltAero:
“Cassio utilizes VoltAero’s hybrid-electric power module in an aft fuselage “pusher” configuration, integrating a cluster of electric motors with a high-performance internal combustion engine that serves as the range extender.”
If you caught that thing about the ICE, VoltAero is reportedly looking into biofuel for that side of things. Come to think of it, VoltAero’s partner on the electricity side is Safran, and this past March Safran announced that it joined a consortium to study biofuel production in the south of France.
Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, VoltAero is pushing ahead with plans for an assembly line in southwest France with a target of about 18 months for first deliveries.
That’s welcome news for electricity fans, considering that just last month Airbus and Rolls-Royce deep-sixed their E-Fan X hybrid demonstrator project.
Sustainable Electricity For Better Aviation Biofuel
The demise of the E-Fan X project indicates that electricity may have trouble squeezing into the space for larger-scale aircraft in the near future. However, the biofuel end is still going strong.
For example, last year the US sustainable fuel company Gevo signed a fuel delivery agreement with SAS in support of a new biofuel facility planned for Luverne, Minnesota.
Those plans appear to be moving forward, with a renewable energy bonus. On May 1 Gevo put two wind turbines into operation with a combined capacity of 5 megawatts, the electricity from which will be delivered directly to the Luverne Facility.
In another interesting twist, back in 2017 the Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory paired up with Gevo to see if the company’s biofuel system could be modified with “bolt-on” catalytic technology to improve the energy density of their fuels. Though the effort was aimed at fuel for missiles, it could also hit commercial aircraft with improved range and payload capacity.
Meanwhile, the Financial Times (paywall) is reporting that the IATA expects biofuel to gain a bigger share of the aviation market in the coming months, COVID-19 or not.
All things being equal, the COVID-19 oil glut would squeeze biofuel out of the aviation market, but airlines are under enormous pressure to decarbonize by various governments. Biofuel is also attractive to defense agencies as a more secure, domestic, and price-predictable source compared to petroleum.
The US Department of Defense became a key driver of the US biofuel industry during the Obama administration and it apparently still has a strong hand in the game. Press announcements on the topic have been few and far in recent years, but a major development took place in February when the international agency ATSM certified a new production pathway for a 50-50 biofuel/fossil fuel blend that meets the US Navy procurement specification for JP-5 (aka CHCJ-5) fuel.
The Hydrogen Option
Where were we? Oh right, electricity in aviation. The challenge of scaling up electric flight and increasing range without relying on ICE range extenders are many, and the German Aerospace Center is among those taking them up. The institution has set a goal of pitching a 70-seater into the skies, which is a challenge if you’re only relying on batteries because the weight of the batteries becomes an issue.
That could explain why they’re looking at a whole-of-fuel-and-aircraft-and-infrastructure approach that includes hybrid technology with batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.
For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity with no emissions (except water), the hurdle now being to disconnect the hydrogen supply chain from fossil gas and hook it up to renewable sources.
Over here in the US, the Department of Defense is also hydrogen-curious for aircraft so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo: Courtesey of VoltAero.