When considering environmental pollution by the transport sector, aviation is one of the worst offenders. With millions of tonnes of carbon emissions produced yearly, the aviation industry looks like one that should have priority when it comes to electrification. However, several roadblocks slow down the electrification of air transport, compared to road.
In this article, we look at the hurdles the aviation sector has to scale as it tries to electrify its operation.
Battery energy density
At the heart of the electric revolution in road transport is the battery. It stores the energy that powers the electric motors that provide propulsion. However, when it comes to batteries in aircraft, there is the problem of energy density.
Batteries are heavier and bigger than aviation fuel, meaning a battery-powered aircraft is heavier. This affects the flying range significantly.
The energy density of typical aviation fuel is between 43 and 48 MJ/kg. This is significantly higher than what the state-of-the-art battery offers, which is about 1.1 MJ/Kg. This means a battery-powered aircraft spends much of its energy supporting the weight of the battery. In contrast, a hydrocarbon-powered plane gets lighter as the fuel is gradually consumed.
Battery charging times
One of the differences between an EV and an ICE car is the time required to refuel them. EVs take considerably longer to fully charge the batteries than putting gas into an ICE car’s tank. The same applies to electric aircraft that have even larger batteries.
It will be challenging for aircraft operators to work charging the battery into their routine if they must maintain the same turnaround time between flights.
Safety is critical in the aviation sector, with no corners cut during aircraft design. This raises the bar significantly when using batteries aircraft as there must be no possibility of thermal events in the pack. Some EV manufacturers have been forced to recall their cars due to fire risk from the battery. This is simply unacceptable in the aviation sector.
The design of the electric airplane has to take place within the reality of air travel. However, it is still a challenge to design battery-powered aircraft that are not too expensive to price out the majority of air flyers.
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