June 10, 2023

For years, scientists have called for quieter, climate-friendly airplanes that rely on batteries instead of jet fuel. Now, they are close to putting them in the sky.

Several airlines, including United, Mesa and Air Canada, have begun placing orders for a battery-powered aircraft called the Hart Aerospace ES-30. The Swedish-made four-propeller, battery-powered plane seats up to 30 people and can fly short-haul routes like Palm Springs to Los Angeles or Denver to Aspen without any carbon emissions. It will be on air by 2028.

Meanwhile, small single-passenger electric planes are also getting the green light to fly, with some Used by the military Europe. Electric seaplanes are being tested and used in Canada. And analysts at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory now estimate that hybrid electric 50- to 70-seater planes could be in service within a decade.

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Electric planes could solve big headaches for airlines, manufacturers and industry experts say. They can help companies achieve emissions reduction commitments by reducing fuel and maintenance costs and make shorter flight routes financially feasible.

But major challenges remain, starting with battery technology, which must advance rapidly to make commercial travel viable. On top of that, planes will need regulatory approval and airlines will have to convince passengers that it’s safe to fly thousands of feet in the air on battery power.

“We haven’t done anything this new with airplanes in forever,” said Gokin Channer, assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. But “there’s definitely a lot we still need to work on.”

Globally, commercial aviation accounts for 2.4 percent of the world’s climate emissions, but this could rise to 22 percent by 2050 if no changes are made, the European government said. Information shows

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Anders Forslund, founder and CEO of Hart Aerospace, started his company in 2018 and designed the ES-19, a 19-seat electric plane. Last week, the company announced a plane that could seat 30 people, the ES-30.

Company officials say the plane can fly up to 124 miles on a full battery and emit zero emissions. It is powered by more than 5 tons of lithium ion batteries near the landing gear, which are stored in its underside, Forslund said. The aircraft will charge in about 30 minutes.

Air Canada has placed an order for 30 of these planes. United Airlines and Mesa Airlines placed orders for 100 each.

The ES-30 has a maximum range of about 500 miles, although any flight beyond 124 miles requires the assistance of a sustainable jet-fuel-consuming generator on board. In hybrid mode, the aircraft will emit 50 percent less carbon than its single-jet-fuel counterpart, Forslund said. He added that cabin noise will be much lower than what commercial passengers are used to.

The aircraft’s per-seat operating costs are estimated to be similar to a 50-person propeller plane, the company said, which could be financially attractive to airlines. Making electric planes that are economically attractive to airlines is central to mass adoption and putting a dent in climate emissions.

“If you can only make it [the plane] “Work technically but not commercially,” he said, “then the climate proposal is going to be small.”

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Experts warn that the skies are unlikely to be filled with all-electric-powered planes anytime soon.

Scientists need to push lithium-ion technology to unknown limits or create batteries using other chemistry. And the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t finalized how it will certify electric planes as safe for passenger flights. The FAA is working to develop those regulations, but it’s unclear if they’ll be ready before 2028, Canner said.

“Normally, our industry doesn’t make big changes. You make minimal changes over time,” he said. “So there’s high risk, but high reward.”

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