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A close-up of a plane wing and an engine attached to the side of an aircraft.In the early 20th century, science fiction authors imagined humanity using flying cars by the year 2000. While that may not have become a reality, we are moving closer to viable electric planes. But just how close are we?

How Close Are We To Electric Planes?

Electric aircraft may sound pretty futuristic, but the first-ever electronically-powered flight took place way back in 1883 when two French brothers successfully flew a small electric airship at three miles per hour. More recently, there’s been a push to create commercial electric planes designed to carry passengers without the need for carbon-based jet fuel, and the first of its kind could be in operation as soon as 2026.

What will this electric passenger plane experience be like, what will future electric aircraft have to offer, and will private jet charter provide the first viable commercial avenue for the technology? 

We take a look at the future of electric planes, including how close we are to having them in our skies, how they work, and the technological hurdles that still need to be overcome in their production.

Electric passenger planes are already a reality

Following the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2016 – which aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – investment and innovation in electric-powered technology was ramped up, and now we’re just a few years away from electric aircraft being a viable option for short-distance air travel.  

To answer the question, are there electric planes that we can fly in, yet?, the answer is no. But there are many at various stages of production and electric commercial flights may be around by 2030. Here are just some of the companies that are looking to introduce electric planes to the market in the near future: 

A passenger aircraft parked on a runway at an airport next to another passenger jet.

easyJet

easyJet’s fleet could include electric planes before any other major European carrier. The budget airline’s partnership with US startup Wright Electric has led to the development of the Wright 1 – an all-electric, 186-seat passenger jet with an 800-mile range that’s set to enter service by 2030.

 A close-up of an engine.

Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce’s electric plane, Spirit of Innovation, reached a record-breaking speed of 387.4 mph during its first test flight in 2021. Renowned for its superior jet engines, Rolls-Royce is at the forefront of the battery-powered revolution and is working closely with other aviation giants such as Airbus to create the next hybrid commercial aircraft.

A prototype aircraft flying through the sky.

NASA

NASA’s electric plane comes in the shape of the X-57. Each of this aircraft’s wings is lined with 12 electric motors with propellers to help lift the craft into the air, plus two larger engines at the end to assist with the plane’s ability to cruise. NASA expects the X-57 to have a range of roughly 100 miles, a cruise speed of 172 mph and a 40-minute maximum flight time. Meanwhile, the aerospace giant has partnered with GE Aviation as part of the Electric Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) programme to mature a megawatt-class hybrid electric engine that could power a single-aisle aircraft.

Maintenance being done on a passenger aircraft in a hanger.

Boeing

Boeing has also tested an electric passenger air vehicle (PAV) of their own. The fully autonomous aircraft has a maximum range of up to 50 miles and was originally designed for Uber Elevate and their flying taxi service. Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences has also been asked to provide aircraft modification, system integration and flight-testing services for NASA’s EPFD project.

A close-up of the propeller blades in a jet engine.

Airbus

Airbus’ E-Fan 1.1 became the first electric plane to cross the English Channel in 2015. The company is now investing in the development of hybrid-propulsion commercial aircraft with jet engines supported by battery power, such as the  E-Fan X, while their EcoPulse project investigates how to minimise the amount of power each propulsor requires.

A concept image of the Eviation Alice flying above a city.

Eviation

Israeli manufacturer Eviation is currently constructing what could be the first electric private jet. The Alice is a nine-passenger, two-crew-member aircraft which produces no carbon emissions, significantly reduces noise and costs a fraction of conventional costs to operate per flight hour. The single-volume, high-energy-density Alice battery system is made from currently available battery cells and is not reliant on future advancements. The aircraft took an eight-minute trip at 3,500 feet from Washington’s Grant County International Airport on the 18th of April 2023 and could be in production by 2024. 

The Ampaire Electric EEL hybrid plane flying through the sky.

Ampaire

L.A. startup Ampaire’s Electric EEL is one of the first hybrid electric aircraft to win approval under the FAA’s experimental aircraft certification. Combining electric and jet fuel, the modified three-passenger Cessna 336 Skymaster completed a 341-mile test flight in 2020, which the company says is the longest-ever electric-hybrid flight for a commercial aircraft.

 A series of lithium-ion batteries connected together.

Beta Technologies

A relative newcomer to the electric aircraft space is Beta Technologies, founded in 2017. They’re working on two electric aircraft, the ALIA-250 and the CX300. The ALIA-250 is expected to be able to transport passengers at 170 mph over a distance of 287 miles. The CX300 has undergone significant testing but no information has been released yet on the exact specs of this electric aircraft

How do electric planes work?

A close-up of a combustion engine.
A close-up of a combustion engine.

Electric vehicles have been driven on our roads for years, but how do electric planes work? 

Like their automobile equivalents, electric aircraft have motors powered by lithium-ion batteries instead of fuel. When electrically charged, a chemical reaction inside the battery causes lithium to release electrons, creating lithium ions. These then run from one side of the battery to the other (anode to cathode) and, along the way, power the attached device – in the case of electric planes, a propeller. 

This chemical reaction continues until all the electrons have reached the cathode, at which point the battery needs to be recharged using an external source of electricity to replace the used electrons and send them to the anode. 

Although this process makes electric motors very powerful in short bursts,  it’s not ideal when it comes to flying a heavy long-haul commercial jet.

What are some of the challenges of electric planes?

A view of an exposed jet engine.
A view of an exposed jet engine.

Recent advances in battery technology have enabled the production of incredibly fast road vehicles, so why are we still some way off from being able to power all-electric 747s or A380s? Here are some of the major hurdles electric planes need to overcome.

Battery weight

One of the main challenges is to fly larger aircraft over long distances. This issue stems from the fact that today’s lithium-ion and other batteries simply don’t offer the same amount of energy density as a fuel-powered engine can. 

Powering a large commercial aircraft for long distances would require several heavy batteries that would account for as much as 60% of the plane’s total weight, compared to just 30% when using jet fuel. 

This power-to-weight challenge means planes at the forefront of the zero-carbon race can only transport small groups of people on short flights. The EasyJet-backed Wright 1, for example, is designed to transport passengers for just an hour.

Electric vehicle infrastructure

Then, there’s the infrastructure required to run an electric aircraft. Electric cars have been around for years and yet it’s still far harder and more time-consuming to charge an electric car than a petrol or diesel one. 

Just like a car, electric aircraft will require a charging infrastructure that is both powerful and efficient, especially when you think of the relatively tight flight schedules of a commercial airline. Currently, a standard aircraft takes 45 minutes to an hour to fully refuel and can run for up to 21 hours (depending on a number of variables) on a single tank. 

The amount of energy required to match this performance will likely exceed what existing airports’ electrical infrastructure can deliver, and new infrastructure will therefore have to be purpose-built. This will require significant financial investment.

Development costs

Time and money also enter the equation for aircraft manufacturers designing electric planes. Certifying a new aircraft is arduous and expensive, with a clean-sheet design often taking between five and seven years to come to fruition. Once it’s built, it needs to undergo multiple tests and approvals before it can be delivered to buyers.

Are we far from having electric private jets?

A pilot boarding a private jet.
A pilot boarding a private jet.

Aside from a few exceptions such as the EasyJet-backed Wright 1, most of the fully-electric planes due for release in the next decade are smaller and have shorter ranges than most of the jet-fuel-powered commercial jets, making them well-suited for private use.

Private aircraft can generally seat up to 19 passengers and make shorter flights than commercial planes – a turboprop, for example, can only cover 1,500 miles non-stop. Electric aircraft can’t quite match this, but with half of global flights covering under 500 miles, they’ll still be a good fit for private jet clients travelling shorter distances.

However, before these kinds of aircraft take off, air taxis, similar to overgrown drones or futuristic helicopters, promise to bring price and convenience to urban flying first. These eVTOLs (vertical takeoff and landing aeroplanes) are set to be in our skies in the coming years, transporting a few select passengers over short distances in an all-electric chopper. 

Archer Aviation is amongst the organisations closest to bringing this kind of aircraft to the market. Their eVTOL aircraft obtained FAA airworthiness certification and completed its first successful hover flight in 2021 and promises to deliver to the market by the end of 2024, transporting four passengers 60 miles at up to 150 mph.

Will hybrid commercial planes come first?

The lower half of a plane, including the landing gear, wings and jet engines.
The lower half of a plane, including the landing gear, wings and jet engines.

Just as hybrid road vehicles (such as the Toyota Prius) were popular before fully-electric cars, we’re likely to first see hybrid solutions in aviation. In the near term, it’s likely that batteries will play a supporting role in reducing a larger aircraft’s CO2 footprint in an application called micro-hybridisation – where batteries power non-propulsive functions, such as air conditioning, cabin pressurisation, communications, flight controls and landing gear.

In time, micro-hybridisation could also be used for certain engine functions on the ground and even in the air. For example, batteries may replace gas-powered auxiliary units to deliver power on the tarmac and help start the main engine. Electric power could also be used to assist the thermal engines during taxi and descent. This form of energy generation could reduce an aircraft’s environmental footprint by around six per cent.

Then, there’s morphing wing technology, which could make a substantial difference in flight sustainability. That’s why ACS has invested heavily in a PhD student undertaking groundbreaking wing technology research

As technology improves, we may also start seeing batteries power individual engines, as with the Airbus E-Fan X, or the elements of flying that require the most power, such as takeoff and landing. 

While we may have to wait decades until we’re able to fly to faraway destinations on an all-electric commercial-sized jet, the race to produce more energy-efficient lithium batteries is hotting up and, as a result, the technology is advancing at an alarming rate. This means we may not have to be as patient as we currently think.  

Charter a flight with Air Charter Service

We may not yet have access to electric aircraft, but Air Charter Service can organise your next private jet charter on a modern aircraft featuring all the latest cutting-edge innovations. 

Whether you’re interested in a luxury private jet for your holiday or you need a business jet for a business trip, our global presence and more than 30 years of experience mean we can source the right aircraft to suit your needs. 

We also offer a Carbon Offset Program for our clients who want to offset their private jet charters. Contact us to learn more or find out more about how we can help you reach your destination quickly and seamlessly with private jet hire.

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