Thursday, July 25, 2024

Airbus trials electric engines to power the future of flight

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Airbus originally looked at deploying much larger motors and batteries but changed tack after calculations showed the plan would add too much weight to be viable. It has instead settled on a more modest hybrid design that aims to reduce fuel consumption by about 5pc on a standard flight.

That would be accompanied by savings from other technological advances, including more efficient jet engines and a longer, thinner wing that Airbus is developing in the UK.

Combined, the changes should help propel the industry toward a target of net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, Mr Mokaddem said, even as airlines’ attempts to switch away from kerosene are held back by high prices and low availability of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

He said: “If we know that, ultimately, SAF won’t be sufficient and will be costly, we need to increase the performance of the plane. That can only come from the introduction of a new, clean energy, and the only clean energy that we have today is electricity.”

Mr Mokaddem said that hybrid technology suitable for future jets is already being trialled on Airbus’s experimental DisruptiveLab helicopter, which first flew last year.

While previously described as a stepping stone toward a more efficient helicopter, two or three motors from the model could be combined in a hybrid successor to the A320, he said.

The executive said: “I cannot go too far into the architecture but the idea is that you size it up two or three times.”

In settling on the hybrid strategy, Airbus has had to accept the limits of battery technology for high-powered aircraft.

Mr Mokaddem said: “In the automotive industry, the bigger and more powerful the battery the better, until ultimately it becomes a fully electric car.

“But we have come to realise that in aviation you need to size the battery with frugality. If you try to electrify everything you need almost a nuclear plant inside the aircraft. And when that battery is empty you are flying around a huge weight.”

Neither are aircraft able to recover energy through braking like a hybrid car, while the auto industry’s view that passengers can evacuate in the event of a battery fire is hardly transferable to those flying at 38,000 feet.

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