While manufacturers continue to enhance fuel efficiency of conventional aircraft models (see our Top 3 of the greenest private jets), the potential advent of electric aircraft could represent a more radical step towards environmental sustainability in aviation, and in private aviation in particular.
In this article, we'll first explore the benefits of electric planes. Then, we'll spotlight the innovative features of some of the best electric plane projects that are propelling the industry forward. Some of these aircraft, such as the Lilium Jet and Alice by Eviation, are clearly designed to position themselves in the private aviation market. Lastly, we'll discuss the prevalent challenge posed by the limitations of current battery technology in electric aviation.
The Advantages of Electric Planes
Electric planes offer zero-emission flights, reducing air travel's carbon footprint. Moreover, they significantly reduce noise pollution - a boon for those living near airports. With the International Civil Aviation Organization's ambitious target of zero CO2 emissions by 2050, electric planes could be a key solution in meeting these climate goals.
Electric planes have the potential for lower operating costs due to less energy expenditure and reduced maintenance expenses. Their electric motors, with fewer moving parts, are typically subject to less wear and tear, thus reducing maintenance needs.
Top Electric Plane Projects
The electric aircraft industry is swiftly evolving, with notable manufacturers and research projects making significant strides in the development of electric aviation technology. The following highlights some of the best electric plane projects currently ongoing.
Diamond Aircraft's eDA40 Model - The Future of Electric Training Aircraft
The Diamond Aircraft's eDA40 is set to revolutionize the world of electric trainer aircraft. As a derivative of the industry-leading DA40 model, the eDA40 will offer comfortable seating for four. Initial flights are scheduled for 2023, with certification expected by the end of 2023 or early 2024.
Key Features of the Diamond Aircraft's eDA40
Designed for Future Training: The eDA40 is expected to provide an optimal environment for flight training, offering up to 90 minutes of flight time.
Rapid Recharge: The eDA40 features DC fast charging, allowing it to be recharged in under 20 minutes.
Powerful Electric Motor: The Diamond Aircraft's eDA40 is equipped with a 130 kW ENGINeUS™ electric smart motor by Safran.
Zero-Emissions: Designed as an all-electric aircraft, the eDA40 promises a significantly reduced carbon footprint, contributing to a cleaner, greener planet.
Strategic Partnerships: In collaboration with Lufthansa Aviation Training (LAT), the eDA40 is set to undergo real-world training testing by end of 2023. Discover more about the collaboration between the eDA40 and Lufthansa Aviation Training for a greener flight training future.
Pipistrel's Velis Electro: The First Type-Certified Electric Training Plane
Launched in 2020, Pipistrel's Velis Electro is the first-ever type-certified electric plane. This two-seater is leading in electric aviation, approved for pilot training in over 30 countries worldwide. Unlike future concepts, this plane is already in the market, with about 100 sold, each valued at around $215,000.
Key Features of the Pipistrel's Velis Electro
Electric Training Plane: With a maximum range of 50 minutes, the Velis Electro is an optimal choice for training flights.
Efficient Charging: The Velis Electro features quick charging cycles, charging from 35% to 95% State of Charge (SoC) in just 80 minutes.
Electric Propulsion: Velis Electro is equipped with Pipistrel’s own type-certified E-811 electric engine, boasting 57.6 kW power and a useful load of 378 lbs (172 kg).
Maximum Cruise and Altitude: This electric plane offers a max cruise speed of 98 kcas (Knots Calibrated Airspeed) and can reach altitudes up to 12,000 feet.
Zero Emission Flights: As a testament to the eco-friendly nature of electric aviation technology, the Velis Electro operates with zero emissions.
Ultra-Quiet Operation: Generating noise levels of only 60 dBa, the Velis Electro is significantly quieter than conventional aircraft, allowing flight training to take place closer to noise-sensitive urban areas.
Backed by Industry Giants: In March 2022, American aviation giant Textron agreed to acquire Pipistrel, incorporating it into their expansive portfolio which includes prestigious private aviation brands like Beechcraft, Cessna, and Hawker. As part of Textron's newest business segment, Textron eAviation, Pipistrel now has access to greater resources, technical and regulatory expertise, and a global aircraft sales and support network.
CityAirbus NextGen - An Electric Plane Revolutionizing Urban Air Mobility
The CityAirbus NextGen, a vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) prototype from Airbus, could signify a future breakthrough in urban air mobility. Leveraging the experience gained from two prior projects - CityAirbus and Vahana, Airbus targets a first flight for this next generation iteration before the end of 2023 and aims for entry into service with type certification by 2025.
Key Features of the CityAirbus NextGen
Anticipated Performance: This all-electric plane is projected to have an operational range of 43 nm (80 km) with a cruise speed of 64,8 knots (120 km/h), making it suitable for urban flight operations.
Innovative Design: The CityAirbus NextGen features a fixed wing, V-shaped tail, and eight electric propellers in its distributed propulsion system. Integral to this design is the MAGiDRIVE electric motor from MAGicALL, with torque densities up to 50 Nm/kg and efficiencies over 95%.
Quiet and Sustainable: The CityAirbus NextGen operates quietly with sound levels below 65 dB in flight and 70 dB during landing. Its eVTOL capability allows for quieter vertical take-offs and landings. As an all-electric aircraft, it promises zero-emission flights.
Diverse Applications: The CityAirbus NextGen will be a versatile electric aircraft, designed to carry one pilot and three passengers while catering to a range of missions, from passenger transport and medical services to ecotourism. Its eVTOL capability will enable air-taxi operations between strategically located vertiports within cities. For more insight, read this article about the future of Flying taxis in the Paris sky.
Designed for Regional Air Mobility: The Lilium Jet
Currently under the type certification process with both the EASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, Lilium is leading the way in the future of private aviation with its electric jet, the Lilium Jet. The company's CEO, Klaus Roewe, has announced plans for their first manned flight in the second half of 2024, with type certification expected by late 2025.
Key features of the Lilium Jet
Efficient Cruise Phase: The Lilium Jet outperforms many competitors with its impressive range of over 135 nm (250km), made possible by its advanced electric propulsion and unique cell technology. Lilium's mission is to connect towns and cities within 40 to 200km at launch, and extend to 500km over time, reaching speeds of up to 162 knots (300km/h).
Regional Air Mobility (RAM): Unlike some other electric plane manufacturers focusing on Urban Air Mobility (UAM), Lilium is committed to the concept of Regional Air Mobility (RAM). This goal aligns with Lilium's strategy of offering higher payloads across wider ranges, connecting towns and cities beyond the usual UAM scope.
Versatile Design: This electric private jet has been designed with versatility at its core. Whether configured for private flights with luxurious club seating or a 6-seat arrangement for passenger flights, this electric plane meets varied customer needs. Moreover, the aircraft can serve the zero-emissions logistics market when configured without seats.
Zero Emissions: In line with sustainable aviation principles, the Lilium Jet operates entirely emission-free.
Acoustic Noise Reduction: The electric private jet uses engine ducts with acoustic liners to capture and dissipate noise before it can spread into the environment, promising quieter electric flights.
Market Response: The aviation sector is eagerly anticipating the launch of the Lilium Jet. Several entities, including private jet operators, have shown confidence in Lilium's electric aviation technology, securing pre-launch orders and contributing to a robust order pipeline of 645 aircraft. For instance, one of Europe's leading private aircraft operators, ASL Group, has signed an agreement for the delivery of six Lilium Pioneer Edition Jets.
Alice by Eviation - Shaping the Future of Electric Private Aviation
Eviation's Alice, the world’s first clean-sheet, all-electric aircraft, completed its maiden flight in September 27, 2022, marking a transformative moment in the electric aviation industry. This innovative electric private jet, much like the Lilium Jet, is driving a shift towards sustainable, economical, and efficient regional travel. Eviation is working towards a 2027 entry into service with type certification for Alice. With an upgradeable battery system, Alice indicates the prospect for further enhancements in the future, signifying potential for increased range as battery technology evolves.
Key Features of Alice
Ambitious Performance: Alice projects a maximum operating speed of 260 knots (481.52km/h), a range of 250 nm (463km), and a payload capacity of 2,500 lbs (1134 kg), potential made possible by its exceptional 375 Wh/kg battery. In an interview, Eviation's CEO, Gregory Davis, mentioned that half of the world's air travel is less than 500 nautical miles (926 km) and 20-30% under 250 nm.
Efficient Charging: Alice is designed with an efficient charging model, where 30 minutes of charging time could provide an hour of flight time.
Sustainability: As a battery-powered aircraft, Alice exemplifies the future of green aviation. It aims to provide zero carbon emissions, significantly lower operating costs, and a quieter flight experience.
Versatile Configurations: The electric plane is designed to offer flexibility in its service roles. It is intended to accommodate nine passengers for commuter services, six passengers for executive transport, and offer a sizable cargo volume of 450 cubic feet.
Market Response: The electric aviation industry has warmly anticipated the launch of this electric jet, with orders surpassing US$4 billion by May 2023. This enthusiastic response is a testament to Alice's potential to revolutionize the entire aviation industry. For example, DHL is scheduled to receive a delivery of 12 Alice e-cargo planes in 2027.
SolarStratos - An Electric Plane Exploring the Potential of Solar Power
Venturing outside the conventional passenger transport domain, SolarStratos, a solar-electric aircraft, broadens the scope of sustainable aviation with its focus on scientific exploration and sustainable energy promotion. Designed by Calin Gologan and the German company Elektra Solar GmbH, the aircraft embarks on a mission to explore the upper atmosphere with zero-emission propulsion. Since the project launch, the electric plane has completed 68 flights. Founder Raphaël Domjan aligns the project with Switzerland's Climate Law, expressing support for the nation's ambition to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
Key Features of SolarStratos
Solar-Powered Propulsion: SolarStratos operates on a twin electric motor (2 x 19 kW), spinning at a maximum of 2,200 rpm, powered entirely by solar energy.
Tailored Cockpit and Seating: Furnished with aeronautical and specialized solar-electric flight instruments, the cockpit houses a tandem seating arrangement. The rear seat serves to accommodate space suit equipment during stratospheric flight.
Highly Efficient Solar Cells: Spanning approximately 22 square meters on the wings, the latest generation solar cells with an efficiency of 22-24% charge the lithium-ion batteries. The total battery capacity is 14 kWh.
Flights in 2022: SolarStratos executed 22 flights with a cumulative flight time of 14 hours and 18 minutes in 2022.
Stratospheric Aspiration: SolarStratos is pioneering a bold initiative to build an electric plane that can ascend to the stratosphere, powered entirely by solar energy. The future planned mission anticipates a six-hour journey – three hours ascending to the brink of space, a brief 15-minute exploration in the cosmos, and a three-hour descent back to Earth.
The Challenge of Battery Technology in Electric Aviation
The future of aviation lies in electric aircraft, but the road to zero emission flights is not without its challenges. One major roadblock has been the limitations of current battery technology.
Limitations of Current Battery Technology
As the electric aviation industry grows, a significant challenge remains in the form of energy storage. Most electric planes currently rely on lithium-ion batteries, the same technology used in electric cars. However, these batteries have a lower energy density compared to jet fuel. This means that currently electric planes can't fly as far or as long as their fuel-powered counterparts, thus slowing the progress of electric aviation.
For the promise of electric planes to fully materialize, we need batteries with a much higher energy density. Improving battery technology is the key to unlocking the full benefits of electric planes, including reduced carbon emissions, noise pollution, and lower fuel costs. This challenge has electric plane manufacturers globally pushing the boundaries of innovation.
Top Electric Planes Projects Compared by Range, Passengers' Capacities and Expected Certification Date
|Electric plane||Range / Flight Duration||Max. Capacity||Cert.|
|Diamond Aircraft's eDA40 (Training)||90 min||4 pax||By 2024|
|Pipistrel's Velis Electro (Training)||50 min||2 pax||Certified|
|CityAirbus NextGen||43 nm||4 pax||By 2025|
|Lilium Jet||135 nm||6 pax||By 2025|
|Alice by Eviation||250 nm||9 pax||By 2027|
Note: Range, a factor heavily influenced by current battery technology, is expressed differently depending on the type of electric aircraft: in nautical miles (nm) for aircraft designed for longer journeys, and in flight time for training aircraft.
Future Prospects and Challenges for Electric Aviation
Advances and Anticipations in Electric Plane Technology
In 2020, Tesla's CEO Elon Musk anticipated that lithium-ion batteries capable of powering electric aircraft could be a reality within "3 to 4 years", when reaching an energy density of 400 Wh/kg. Today, we are nearing this milestone, with Eviation's Alice, a promising prototype, expected to operate with a 375 Wh/kg battery soon.
At Tesla's Investor Day in 2023, Musk shared his vision for a future where all forms of transportation, barring rockets, could go fully electric. He acknowledged the challenge of energy density for battery-powered planes but expressed optimism that, with some improvements, long-haul flights could become feasible.
Breakthroughs in Battery Technology
CATL, the world's leading lithium-ion battery manufacturer for electric vehicles, claims to have made significant advancements in battery technology for electric planes, announcing the "Condensed Battery" with an energy density of 500Wh/Kg, a figure that surpasses even the 400 Wh/kg target set by Musk.
If CATL's claims prove true, this could extend the range of electric aircraft to 600-700 miles on a single charge — a substantial leap from current capabilities, which typically limit electric planes to shorter domestic flights under 300 miles.
However, these encouraging advancements should be approached with caution. Real-world performance of this new battery technology remains to be seen, and questions persist regarding production scalability, cost-effectiveness, and safety.
The journey towards electric aviation is a complex one, full of promise yet laden with hurdles. Nonetheless, the recent momentum in the sector showcases the significant efforts put into innovation for electric aircraft development. This article has delved into a host of promising electric planes, each with unique features and technologies. And even though we didn't explore them in detail here, there are other electric airplanes, like NASA's X-57 Maxwell or Rolls Royce's Spirit of Innovation, that are pushing sustainable aviation forward.
At the core of this transformation lies a crucial challenge - the development of high-energy-density batteries for electric planes. While strides have been made in this regard, the technology must continue to improve to enable longer flight ranges and greater payload capacities.
A Look Ahead: The Future of Electric Aviation
Looking ahead, the future of electric aviation is promising, propelled by eco-conscious travel demand, technological progress, and encouraging regulatory policies. Governmental support and investment across the globe play crucial roles. For instance, as part of the France 2030 plan, the French government dedicated EUR 1.2 billion to low-carbon aviation R&D, while the UK earmarked £113 million for emission-free electric aircraft development.
In the next decade, we can expect to see an increased presence of electric planes. As battery technology improves and economies of scale come into play, these aircraft will become more affordable and capable, opening up new markets and opportunities. The adoption of electric planes in pilot training programs, and the presence of electric air taxis in urban air mobility, will continue to grow. Furthermore, the future of electric private aviation is promising, with innovative models such as the Lilium Jet and Alice set to receive certification by 2025 and 2027 respectively, marking a significant progression in eco-friendly private air travel.
In conclusion, the journey to the integration of electric planes into aviation might be challenging, but the advancements seen so far have shown that we are moving steadily towards this goal. Indeed, with continued dedication and technological innovation, a sustainable future for aviation is within our grasp.