Long obsessed with unlocking fractional gains in energy efficiency, the aircraft industry is now close to making big gains.

While cars are experiencing a revolution in clean technology, aircraft have been hobbled by the need to get weighty batteries and hybrid systems into the air. Now that is changing.

Electric planes may soon be cleared for takeoff

At the Paris Airshow 2019, Israeli startup Eviation Aircraft announced it had received ‘double-digit’ orders for a nine-seater electric business aircraft. Despite costing US$4 million each, that such an aircraft has become commercially available reveals alternative fuel sources have now arrived in aerospace.

For the advancement of clean energy transportation, this is an important step. Research and development capabilities of the aircraft industry are considerable, and now electric is commercially viable much could soon change for aerospace as a whole.

Project 804

There are signs radical changes are already taking place. Project 804, a plane being developed by United Technologies, will be fitted with a hybrid-electric turboprop engine. During take-off and landing the company hopes a mid-size regional aircraft will only source half of its power demands from a conventional engine.

Although even the demonstrator is only expected to be ready by 2022, expectations are that within the decade the technology will be a commercial reality. In an industry in which large budgets are devoted to finding tiny performance gains, those on offer from the hybrid engine will be revolutionary.

How fast the transformation takes place will depend much on the interest levels of Boeing and Airbus. The two companies dominate the passenger jet aircraft industry and with the rise of exclusive engine deals, they have a greater say on long-term engine development.

E-Fan X project

Early signs suggest the future is approaching fast. While Project 804 is working on a mid-sized regional jet, Airbus announced the company is working on a hybrid electric version of the successful A320neo.

Rolls Royce has partnered with Airbus and Siemens (the German company has since left the project) to develop the E-Fan X programme.

The engine is due to be airborne in 2021 and expectations are high. Both companies are expecting a decrease in fuel burn of double-digits as well as significantly reduced noise pollution.

Although much must occur before such an engine can be fitted to large passenger jet aircraft, so far the E-Fan project appears to be on course for the refresh of the A320neo due in 2035.

Such is the speed of development that by that stage the technology debuted by Eviation Aircraft at the Paris Airshow 2019 will have likely advanced considerably and have much more obvious commercial viability.

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