Are electric planes the future of flight?


It’s no secret that air travel is not good for the environment, with aviation emissions being a significant contributor to climate change. Together with other gases and the water vapour trails produced by aircraft, the industry is responsible for around 5% of global warming. These days, electric and hybrid cars are becoming more popular each year.

So, can we make aviation more sustainable via electric aircraft?

The answer is yes, electric aircraft are in production. But, they have a long way to go before they are used widely and commercially.

Smaller, battery-powered aircraft already exist and are used in training flights and two-person operations. Hybrid-electric aircraft to be used in commercial flights are currently being prototyped by the aviation industry.

How would they work?

Similarly to electric cars, electric planes use electricity to power their engines rather than traditional jet fuel. There are currently two options to power an electric aircraft; battery power and hydrogen power.

Aircraft powered by batteries are currently facing the issue that current batteries are heavy and don’t hold enough power. In order to become more mainstream, they would need to become lighter, whilst also storing enough energy to fuel the plane.

Hydrogen power is the alternative to battery-powered aircraft. California-based ZeroAvia is currently developing a hydrogen fuel system that can generate the electricity needed to power a six-seater aircraft. It will be fitted with tanks carrying compressed hydrogen gas, which the fuel cell uses to generate electrical energy by combining with oxygen. This powers the propellers, with only water vapour released from the aircraft. ZeroAvia is hoping to supply the system for zero-emissions flights to small (up to 20-seat) commercial airliners and aircraft manufacturers by 2022.

When will fully electric aircraft become a commercial reality?

These examples show the potential of electric aircraft, but fuelling commercial aircraft through batteries alone is still a way off. Short-term, it is likely that smaller electric aircraft will operate in smaller cities from around 2024. As battery technology develops, so will the size of aircraft that can be built and therefore, fly.

Is anyone using electric planes currently?

No major airlines are currently implementing electric aircraft into their fleet. However, there are lots of exciting developments in the near future:

  • In July 2021, United Airlines announced that it was buying 100 electric 19-seater, zero-emission planes from Swedish startup Heart Aerospace. They are set to take flight for short trips in the United States in 2026.

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