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Researchers Explore New Batteries To Power Electric Planes

Can researchers built a new kind of battery powerful enough to fuel an electric airplane? MIT’s Technology Review profiles a company co-founded by MIT materials science professor Yet-Ming Chiang:

He and his colleague, Venkat Viswanathan, are taking a different approach to reach their next goal, altering not the composition of the batteries but the alignment of the compounds within them. By applying magnetic forces to straighten the tortuous path that lithium ions navigate through the electrodes, the scientists believe, they could significantly boost the rate at which the device discharges electricity. That shot of power could open up a use that has long eluded batteries: meeting the huge demands of a passenger aircraft at liftoff. If it works as hoped, it would enable regional commuter flights that don’t burn fuel or produce direct climate emissions…
The initial plan is to develop a battery that could power a 12-person plane with 400 miles (644 kilometers) of range — enough to make trips from, say, San Francisco to Los Angeles, or New York to Washington. In a second phase, they hope to enable an electric plane capable of carrying 50 people the same distance…. Last year, the company announced plans to deliver a line of “hybrid to electric” aircraft with room for 12 passengers in 2022. At launch, the company intends to offer a hybrid plane with a gas turbine and two battery packs capable of flying around 700 miles (1,127 kilometers), as well as an all-electric version with three battery packs and a range of less than 200 miles….But crucially, the plane itself is expected to feature an open architecture that allows owners to switch out these modules over time, enabling them to upgrade to better batteries developed in the future or shift from hybrid to all-electric operation.

About 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions come from air travel, and it’s one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse-gas pollution. “More than a dozen companies, including Uber, Airbus, and Boeing, are already exploring the potential to electrify small aircraft,” the article points out, “creating the equivalent of flying taxis that can cover around 100 miles (161 kilometers) on a charge. The hope is that these one- or two-passenger vehicles — in most cases envisioned as autonomous vertical takeoff and landing aircraft — could shorten commutes, ease congestion, and reduce vehicle emissions.”

But with less ambitious batteries, “these would largely replace car rides for the rich, not displace air travel.”

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