10–12 July 2017
Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia

Fully Electric Aviation ‘Unlikely’ in Near Future

Posted: 11 July 2017, 10:00 a.m. EDT


Panelists: Moderator Meyer “Mike” Benzakein, assistant vice president for aerospace and aviation, The Ohio State University; Stéphane Cueille, senior executive vice president and chief technology officer, Safran; Eric H. Ducharme, general manager of advanced technology operation, GE Aviation; Alan Epstein, vice president of technology and environment, Pratt & Whitney; Alan Newby, director of aerospace technology and future programs, Rolls-Royce

by Tom Risen, Aerospace America staff reporter

Despite demand to reduce carbon emissions by researching and developing electric-powered aircraft, executives in the “Aircraft Propulsion — What Does the Future Bring?” panel July 10 at the 2017 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Atlanta said they are skeptical that projected battery technology will completely replace gas engines in aircraft.

Working on battery-powered aircraft is an admirable goal, but “we need to keep it realistic for larger aircraft,” said Stéphane Cueille, chief technology officer of Safran. A fully-electric Airbus A320, for instance, would be weighed down by the many batteries necessary for its engines unless there was a major breakthrough in battery power, Cueille said.

Electric energy is not pollution-free, and swapping gas-powered aviation for electric aviation right now may not produce less carbon dioxide, said Alan Epstein, vice president of technology and environment for Pratt & Whitney.

Business models will also determine the pace at which electric aviation develops. The growth of computer technology, and telecommuting, for instance, could reduce how often people fly, or they may want to fly faster and more often, said Alan Newby, director of aerospace technology for Rolls-Royce.

AircraftPropulsion-Future-Panel-PE2017

Participants in the panel discussion, "Aircraft Propulsion — What Does the Future Bring?” July 10 during the 2017 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Atlanta.

“We all know the world is getting warmer,” Newby said, citing the demand to limit the environmental impact of the aerospace sector.

Newby advised to those who work in gas turbines, “don’t hang your boots up just yet,” because there is also room to optimize fuel efficiency of gas engines. The fuel demands for long-range, large aircraft are so great that “it’s very unlikely that with current projected battery technology” that fully electric engines will completely replace gas turbines, Newby said, adding that there are opportunities for hybrid electric aviation.

Hybrid engines have near-term potential to save fuel costs, however, so Safran has done ground tests for helicopter engines that can switch between gas and electric power, Cueille said.

Challenges facing the widespread use of hybrid electric aircraft, however, include safety, high voltage insulation and power density, said Eric Ducharme, general manager for advanced technology operations at GE Aviation.

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