Electric-Powered Airplanes May Be On the Horizon

The concept of embracing green practices is so much more than a mere passing fad. Individuals and businesses all across the country and the world are attempting to reduce their energy use and overall carbon footprints, which explains the growing popularity of everything from reusable bags to compost piles. Solar energy installation increased more than 23 times between 2008 and 2015, and the use of solar continues to rise. Immersion-based data center cooling solutions are more cost-effective while reducing energy by up to 20%, as well, which means that consumers can still access their digital information while organizations can cut their costs and their energy waste. And, of course, electric vehicles are becoming more prevalent with each passing year. But while electric cars have just started to really take off on our roads, it’s becoming clear that electric-powered transportation options might start to soar in the skies, too. That is, if airline carriers (and NASA) have their way.

In 2011, there were an estimated 224,475 total active general aviation craft operating in the United States. Demand for air travel continues to grow, resulting in a record high for U.S. air travel rates last year. The bad news? American transportation is actually the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, with aircraft accounting for 12% of all transportation emissions. Those emissions are predicted to increase sevenfold worldwide by 2050 if no changes are made, which has prompted organizations to take action.

Vancouver-based seaplane airline Harbour Air recently announced that they plan to adopt a zero emissions policy thanks to electric airplanes. The airline has more than 40 propeller-driven seaplanes that transport nearly 500,000 passengers per year to 12 different locales throughout the Pacific Northwest. And while batteries and electric motors were originally designed for cars, the technology works perfectly with their existing equipment. Since these aircraft already require less energy to fly and are flown for less than 40 minutes on Harbour Air’s routes, it seems like a match made in heaven. Plus, the company has been carbon neutral since 2007, so electric-powered planes seemed like the next logical step.

But Harbour Air isn’t the only group that’s working towards making electric planes a reality. NASA is also attempting to develop airplanes powered by electricity — but in their case, they’re using cryogenically-liquified hydrogen fuel to do it. NASA engineers have been given $6 million and three years to develop the technology that could change the aviation industry as we know it. Previously, a team from the University of Illinois discovered a way to cryogenically cool hydrogen cells, which could later be condensed into liquid form and be utilized as fuel. When the hydrogen liquid mixes with oxygen within an engine, the reaction creates a lot of energy that can be converted into electricity. But since there’s no technology yet that can use this fuel to power a plane, NASA will have to devote its efforts and its funding to develop it.

Since hydrogen is finally becoming more cost-effective, it’s actually feasible that it could be used as a fuel source. Germany and other European countries are investing in hydrogen-powered transportation, so it makes sense that the United States would be eager to get in on the action. Still, researchers point out that there’s a lot of ground to cover — and a lot of introductory issues that need to be solved before electric aircraft will grace the friendly skies. Still, the commitment to new and sustainable technologies is encouraging. We’ll just have to wait and see whether what researchers have in mind will actually be possible.

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