This week, California-based Wright Electric announced its plans to begin flying a 100-passenger all-electric airplane on routes of 1 hour or less by 2027. How does it expect to do that? By converting BAe 146 regional aircraft — originally manufactured by BAE Systems in 1983 — to electric power starting in 2026.
The BAe 146 was chosen for several reasons. First, it is equipped with 4 jet engines, which can be replaced with 4 of Wright Electric’s 2 MW electric aircraft engines. The plan is to replace one jet engine with an electric motor in 2023, replace 2 jet engines with electric motors in 2024, and replace all 4 jet engines with electric motors in 2025, before beginning passenger service in 2026. Second, the BAe 146 is known for its steep climb capabilities and relatively quiet operation, making it the ideal airplane for use in airports located near city centers where noise issues are a concern.
Wright Electric plans to build a fleet of the converted planes, which will have a range of about one hour or 460 miles (740km). The revamped model — called the Spirit — will be a stepping-stone toward a previously planned clean sheet aircraft intended to take to the skies in 2030.
Does 460 miles sound too short to you? Check out this map showing all the routes the converted BAe 146 could service in Europe. It’s enough range to go from Sydney to Melbourne, from Tokyo to Osaka, or from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
“Customers are demanding cleaner options and we want to show there is an alternative,” says Jeffrey Engler, CEO of Wright Electric. “A retrofit airplane is always going to suffer from disadvantages but at the same time it’s a certified aircraft.”
The certification process for an all new airplane can take years to obtain. Wright is working on its own clean sheet new aircraft, which will carry 186 passengers and have a range of 800 miles (1288 km), while learning how to make electric flight possible using the converted BAe 146 airplanes.
The Boring Details
That’s it for the exciting stuff. The world is on the cusp of electric air travel and Wright Electric is one of the companies leading the way. But where will the power come from to power those megawatt-scale motors? That’s where things get interesting. Wright Electric has a white paper that examines that question in detail and it makes fascinating reading. We will attempt to abstract some of that information but if you really want to dig down into the details of how it will be done, check out the white paper for yourself. It’s interesting stuff.
Hydrogen Versus Aluminum Fuel Cell
For aircraft, weight is a critical factor. Both hydrogen and aluminum have far higher potential energy density than lithium-ion batteries. That’s good. But they are much heavier and bulkier. That’s bad. Wright Electric is focusing on both hydrogen fuel cells and aluminum fuel cells to power its electric airplanes.
Hydrogen is tricky stuff to work with. Among other issues, it burns with a colorless flame, which means storing tanks within the body of the airplane is problematic for passenger safety. To liquefy hydrogen, it must be cooled to 10 degrees Kelvin. Even with the best storage tanks available, it cannot be stored in liquid form for more than about a day. And while hydrogen is light, the fuel cells themselves are not. In addition, for air travel at elevations where the amount of oxygen is reduced, heavy and bulky systems are needed to make enough of it available for the fuel cell.
Aluminum fuel cells show promise for air travel because the aluminum “fuel” is something airports can handle easily with conventional cargo machinery, but it also requires a reliable source of oxygen at higher elevations — adding weight to the system.
The challenges that must be overcome before the era of electric flight begins are enormous, but that doesn’t mean they are insurmountable. Wright Electric and other companies are going full speed ahead into the future, and the environment will be cleaner as a result. Electric airplanes are a lot harder to do than electric automobiles.
That darned jet fuel is so energy dense compared to other fuel sources (and cheap thanks to generous direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry), it will be tough to displace it in a cost-effective manner. Fortunately, the companies attempting this are undaunted and every day brings the world closer to the age of emissions-free electric flight.
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