Technology

Flight of fantasy

 By Mike Scott

It has long been held that although you can power a car with batteries, you cannot do the same with trucks, or aircraft…

Sure, the Solar Impulse aircraft managed to fly around the world using only the power of the sun, but with more than 17,000 solar panels and a wingspan longer than a Boeing 747 to carry one person, it was hardly a practical example. It’s a simple matter of physics–electric engines have lacked the energy density to lift a plane or move a truck, not least because to do so would require a much bigger battery, meaning even more power would be needed. And yet, in recent weeks, a number of companies have announced plans to build all-electric aircraft–and the godfather of electric transport, Elon Musk, has said Tesla will unveil an electric truck this year. Wright Electric says it aims “for every short flight to be electric within 20 years” and it plans to be flying a 150-seat electric-powered commercial flight between London and Paris within a decade. Budget airline Easyjet is said to be interested in the technology. Meanwhile, Australian technology developer MagniX is preparing to trial a high power-density electric motor, which uses superconductors and permanent magnet rotating machines, with a view to a test flight by 2020. “MagniX technology is capable of producing up to three times the power density of modern aircraft engines,” the company says. “Our mantra is 10 times better, not 10 percent better.” There has also been a flurry of flying car announcements recently, such as Larry Page’s Kittyhawk project and German start-up Lilium’s Eagle, which are also meant to be electric-powered.

Cartivator Skydrive flying car (cartivator.com)

It’s not just startups looking at this area–heavyweights such as NASA, Siemens and Airbus are all looking at the technology, too, while Japan’s biggest carmaker Toyota is backing a startup company created by one of its employees. Cartivator plans to carry out the first manned flight of its Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) vehicle by the end of 2018 and wants one of its low-flying cars to be used to light the Olympic flame at the 2020 Olympics as a prelude to having it ready for use in urban areas by 2025. Tesla says its electric truck will be unveiled in September and Musk promises it “will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate.” All the major truckmakers are looking at ways to cut emissions from trucking, including Cummins, Daimler, Volvo and Scania, while Toyota is looking at fuel cell technology to power the vehicles.

Toyota Fuel Cell (Maurizio Pesce, Wikimedia)

These developments, if they come to fruition, are impressive in themselves. But they are important for another reason–if companies can develop batteries that can move trucks or get aircraft off the ground, the technological innovations involved could have a massive impact in the more down-to-earth electric vehicle and stationary storage markets. This could result in cutting costs even more quickly than today’s already-rapid rate, drastically improving performance and speeding the electrification of the transport sector and the advent of energy storage.

SEE MORE: The growth of green aviation by RP Siegel

about the author
Mike Scott
Journalist. Environment, Sustainability, Climate Change, Investing, Energy, Supply Chain, Transport, Circular Economy, Stranded Assets, ESG, Smart Cities, Wealth Management, Family Offices, Asset Management, EU.