The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is poised to designate an all-electric plane concept as its newest, futuristic aircraft in the biggest boost yet for the idea of building airliners that don’t burn fuel.
The announcement, expected Friday, would place the electric plane in the footsteps of other aviation firsts that the U.S. has pursued through its futuristic “X-Planes” series, which dates to Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 and was first to break the sound barrier in 1947. The electric aircraft is expected to be called the X-57 and could fly as early as next year, said a person familiar with the plan.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is expected to unveil the designation of the next X-plane, the person said. NASA had no comment ahead of the official announcement.
Some of the world’s industrial giants, NASA and a handful of pioneering airlines are plunging headlong into developing commercially viable electric-power airplanes, aiming to come up with a Tesla of the skies.
The push is moving the idea significantly beyond the small circle of enthusiasts who have chased it for decades. Concepts include relatively straightforward efforts to use hydrogen cells for taxiing and onboard power and more ambitious plans to replace a commercial aircraft’s fuel-burning engines with electric power plants.
“We are in the Wild, Wild West again of aeronautics,” said Mark Moore, a principal researcher at NASA.
European jet maker Airbus Group SE and German industrial company Siemens AG in April said they plan to put 200 engineers together to work on electric or hybrid-electric technologies that can be used in aerospace. Hybrid electric designs operate similar to a Toyota Prius—a conventional battery-operated electric motor is used to augment a fuel-burning combustion engine.
“We are now really putting significant money” into the effort, Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders said in a May interview. He projects that 100-seat, hybrid-electric passenger aircraft could be flying by 2030.
Airbus last year flew a two-seat electric plane called the E-Fan across the English Channel to help generate interest. The plane used lithium batteries to power the 36-minute flight, though there is still a long way to go to advance battery technology enough to take a similar approach for larger planes.
Meanwhile, Boeing Co. is working on a concept that would use regular jet engines on takeoff and switch to electric power during the flight. The Pentagon’s technology arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is working with partners including British engine-maker Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC and Honeywell International Inc. on a drone using hybrid-electric propulsion.
Airlines are looking at the possibility, too. European budget airline easyJet PLC plans to test equipment on its Airbus single-aisle planes to make them less reliant on traditional fuel-consuming engines, said Ian Davies, the carrier’s head of engineering.
Hydrogen fuel cells could allow airliners to taxi without their main engines running, reducing fuel consumption and noise, Mr. Davies said. Another promising idea: Harvest the kinetic energy from spinning wheels on takeoffs and landings in a generator that could charge the plane’s batteries. That concept is already used in Formula One race cars, allowing them to store energy from braking that can be used to deliver a boost for overtaking competitors.
Modern jet planes are 70% more fuel-efficient than the kerosene guzzlers of 40 years ago. The pace of efficiency improvement is moderating, though, just as pressure for greater savings is growing. Airlines this year are expected to burn 80 billion gallons of fuel. Even at today’s low oil price that amounts to an annual fuel bill of about $127 billion for the airline industry.
Political pressure to reduce fuel consumption also is mounting. The International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations’ aviation regulator, this year approved the first fuel-efficiency standard for new planes. ICAO members later this year could endorse a global carbon-dioxide cap-and-trade system for aviation, adding an incentive for airlines to reduce fuel consumption.
Industry executives acknowledge the technological challenges. Boeing, in an email statement, said “it would be premature to speculate when or if we will see a hybrid commercial airplane as there are still many technology hurdles to overcome.”
Regulatory hurdles are also high.
“You can’t expect the [Federal Aviation Administration] to be permitting this technology until it has lots of hours in operation,” NASA’s Mr. Moore said.
NASA plans to demonstrate some of its electric-plane ideas with the coming X-Plane: a highly modified version of the four-seat, Tecnam P2006T plane, called the Sceptor. Costruzioni Aeronautiche Tecnam s.r.l., based just north of Naples, has been in business since 1948 and specializes in building two-seat to four-seat planes.
NASA engineers want to ditch the plane’s twin engines and wings, replacing them with a series of small electric propellers spread across much sleeker wings.
NASA’s Mr. Moore said the configuration promises a 30% reduction in total operating costs. The batteries driving the propellers could be charged on the ground using solar cells, Mr. Moore said.
The plane concept has already won converts. Cape Air, a Barnstable, Mass.-based independent regional airline, is working with NASA and the Italian manufacturer to incorporate practical considerations in the design.
Cape Air operates a fleet of mainly nine-seat Cessna planes flying short routes, such as from Boston to Nantucket, Mass. The short flight times make the use of electric planes a real prospect, said Jim Goddard, senior vice president for fleet planning at the airline. “We think it would be a great fit,” he said.
Article origin by Robert Wall, Wall Street Journal aerospace specialist
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