British airline EasyJet is pushing the envelope on its quest to grow its ultra-low-fare flight service while keeping operating costs down. This includes things like using virtual reality for crew training, making airplane parts with 3-D printers, and employing drones to perform safety inspections.
Now the airline is preparing to test out a new hybrid airplane later this year. Not only will this airplane utilize regenerative braking to reclaim energy during landings, but it will also utilize onboard fuel cells.
Electric motors, powered by the fuel cells, will power the planes while taxiing on the ground, a function that currently accounts for roughly 4 percent of an airline’s fuel bill. The company claims that this innovation could potentially save 50,000 tons of fuel annually. According to Ian Davies, EasyJet’s director of engineering, the airline’s budget-oriented passengers help to make this work. “Because of the fact we’re a low-cost carrier, most people take hand luggage and our hulls are empty, so we have the space to do it,” he told CNN.
Not only will this save money, but it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It would also eliminate the need for tugs to tow the airplanes to the runway, which will provide additional energy savings. A further benefit is the fact that fuel cells produce clean water as their one and only waste product, which can be used to replenish the aircraft’s water supply.
The company claims that a three- to five-year proof-of-concept period will be required before the company can begin the commercialization process. This effort is aimed at the company’s goal to reduce fuel consumption by 7 percent by 2020. Other efforts include reducing the weight of everything from carpets to food carts, as well as a process to extract moisture from the cabin that can eliminate 330 pounds of unnecessary weight.
Innovations like this are going to be necessary to keep air travel viable in a world that needs to drastically reduce carbon emissions.
A little further along the boldness axis, Elon Musk has spoken about fully electric jets. He has a vision of a plane that will take off and land vertically. Once his Gigafactory is up and running, he will have plenty of batteries.
But, as cutting edge as this sounds, it’s worth noting that Airbus already flew an electric jet across the English Channel and has a roadmap that will lead it to a short-range regional jet in the years ahead. The single-seat, 1,300-pound prototype E-fan has now flown more than 100 missions powered fully by electricity.
The short-term goal is E-fan 2.0: a two-seat, short-range personal sport aircraft. The first step is a non-flight ground simulator model to be used to develop the robust control system that will be required. This will be followed by a four-seater. According to Detlef Müller-Wiesner, director of the Airbus Group electric aircraft program, the electric engines will be in the 1- to 2-megawatt range. This is part of a long-term effort by the European Union to reduce aircraft emissions by 75 percent.
Image courtesy of EasyJet