All-electric plane takes flight
The largest ever all-electric aeroplane has recently been on its maiden voyage. It’s a 40-foot-long, retrofitted Cessna, that spent half an hour in the air without a drop of fuel. That’s a big deal for air travel because the industry has found it hard to come up with anything green that packs the same energy punch as traditional aviation fuels. This electric plane’s creators are from a company called MagniX, and they claim these planes could be commercially viable within 5 years - although larger versions might not appear for another 3 decades. So are these planes really a way forward? Eva Higginbotham has been speaking to the head of MagniX, Roei Ganzarski...
Roei - What we did last week was the largest commercial aircraft to fly all electric: a Cessna Grand Caravan. It's an aircraft that traditionally will take anywhere between 9 to 14 passengers plus pilots, depending on the configuration. And right now we've converted it to all electric. And last week we started flying it all electric. The Cessna Caravan is one of the two most prevalent middle-mile aircraft flying around the world today. There are literally thousands of these aircraft that take packages or people on short distances. And so being able to take it electric, and mean that it can go on lower fuel or no fuel, lower operating costs, and zero emissions, means that these thousands of aeroplanes can now provide a much better service, and a much cleaner service to the passengers or packages that are taken on it.
Eva - So if it's about saving money, why is it cheaper to fly an electric plane than a regular plane?
Roei - Fuel is expensive. Overall, it's much more expensive than electricity. The flight we just did with a Cessna Grand Caravan, we spent a little under 6 U.S. Dollars for that 30 minute flight, in electricity. If it was a regular Cessna Grand Caravan on the traditional internal combustion engine, we would be spending about 300 U.S. Dollars on fuel alone. The second main aspect is that 30% of an aircraft operating cost per hour is the maintenance of the engine. So between the fuel and the maintenance, we're looking at about 40 to 80% lower cost for every hour of flight and that's significant.
Eva - And so to get this plane off the ground, do you need really, really big batteries, I assume?
Roei - The batteries today are not as good as we would like them to be. For example, on a Magni-fied aircraft - meaning a retrofitted aircraft - we could probably take nine passengers about a hundred miles, plus/minus; but if you take an all new electric aircraft that's designed to be electric, like the Eviation Alice for example, for which we are also providing the propulsion system, they can take nine passengers over 500 miles. So five times as long using the same battery technology. Why? Because their aircraft was designed to be a flying battery of sorts.
Eva - And how long might it take for their battery like that to charge?
Roei - Yeah, so we did a 30 minute flight and using a supercharger, a car supercharger, like for example what you would find at a Tesla location, or a Kia electric location. It would take about a one to one ratio. So a 30 minute flight will be 30 minutes to charge, maybe up to 45 minutes to charge. So by all means not as fast as refueling, of course, which would take only minutes. But if you think about it being able to travel for 30 minutes, and then be on the ground for 30 to charge is not a bad deal, when you think about the fact that you're at costs 40 to 80% lower and creating zero emissions for the environment. So overall it’s not a bad trade off.
Eva - Are there any limitations to electric planes as they stand now, and also as they might develop in the future?
Roei - Yes. Right now the biggest limitations are of course, batteries. I will say upfront. I don't believe batteries will be ever as powerful as fuel. I don't think that will happen. The right question to ask is, given how far I can fly with an electric plane, does anyone need it? So for example, I mentioned that the Cessna Caravan can go about a hundred miles. The question is, does anyone want to travel a hundred miles? And if you look at airline data last year, 5% of all worldwide flights were less than a hundred miles of range. In fact, 45% of their flights are under 500 miles of range.
So if you think about that, taking an existing aircraft and turning it electric, even though it has a limited range today of a hundred miles, will still fly 5% of worldwide flights. And the new electric aircraft, like the Eviation Alice, while only, quote unquote, being able to do 500 miles, that covers 45% of worldwide flights. So the demand, most of our people fly short haul. However, there is work going on to start with a hybrid capability, meaning having electric motors turning those propellers, but having some sort of range extender that's gas based providing some of the electricity. And so from that perspective, we will probably, most likely, see larger aircraft start as a hybrid. And then eventually, as either battery or fuel cell technology gets better, we'll then see them go all electric.