May 1, 2020, ©. Leeham News: We now wrap the series about technologies that can help reduce air transport’s environmental footprint.
I wrote in the first article, December 13: We have lost our way in our search for a lower carbon footprint air transport system by heading down the electric lane. I will argue why it’s not the best route as it’s not the route that leads to tangible results any time soon, despite huge investments.
In 19 Corners to date, we discussed why. It’s time to summarize what we learned.
Central to the discussion has been the notion of a hype cycle, where new technologies catch the imagination of entrepreneurs that want to make a difference. Gradually you then work yourself through the fundamentals, and projects fail as reality surfaces.
The first signs of reaching the first top is with us. Zunum’s project has gone quiet, and Airbus’ E-Fan X flight test phase was canned last week. In the next months, others will follow, and it won’t be because of the COVID crisis.
The reality that surfaces is that battery technology is so far from what is needed. There’s a massive difference between the performance of a research lab cell and the energy density of an aeronautically certifiable battery system. As this dawns on projects, they fold.
I want to repeat that the best observation platform for the state of battery technology is Formula E racing. It searches ultimate battery performance with acceptable levels of safety and durability. The battery system of a Formula E race car presently weighs 70 times more than a jet fuel system of equal energy content.
And aircraft are, opposed to cars, incredibly weight sensitive. So it just doesn’t work.
95% of the 200 electric or electric hybrid projects addressing our environmental air transport problem have battery-based energy as a cornerstone. It will kill all that relies on it.
The only air transport that can function with the battery as an energy store is extreme short-haul, think below 100nm.
We also learned that electric hybrids could work, but they bring no benefits, just complexity, and unsolved problems.
What has a chance to offer a real long term change is hydrogen-fueled propulsion. But there is a lot of ground to cover before we know for sure and have a workable ecosystem.
So we shall dig where we stand and work with the low hanging fruit we discussed last week. There is a lot of potential in these technologies, and they are worth investment.
They are all included in CORSIA, the ICAO program that is the unified approach to a de-carbonized air transport system. This is the route that leads us to real progress.