Friday, June 10, 2011

Battery Powered Propeller Airplanes: The Future of Aviation?

Long deemed to be an aviation engineering impossibility due to the low power-to-weight ratio of existing battery technology, are the newfangled airworthy battery powered propeller planes represent the future of aviation?

By: Ringo Bones

With the advent of battery technology of the last few years that now have almost similar power-to-weight ratio of gasoline powered piston engines, battery powered planes had made their mark for a few years now – in the remotely-controlled scale-model world at least. But are battery-powered propeller planes capable of carrying a pilot and significant payload represents the cleaner and greener future of aviation?
The Elektra One, designed by aviation engineer Calin Gologan is probably the first ever battery-powered propeller driven aircraft capable of carrying its own pilot that had been successfully flown and landed safely. Elektra One uses advanced lightweight rechargeable lithium polymer batteries – i.e. lithium iron phosphate batteries - that can make the plane fly 500miles non-stop on a single-charge. Though the design represent one step in making general aviation more climate friendly, making and designing one capable of flying with hundreds of passengers and tens of tons of payloads and capable of flying halfway around the world on a single-charge is still probably decades away.

Despite its unassumingly conventional design, the Elektra One is one aviation engineering tour-de-force. Its wings are made of high-strength composites having only a total weight of 30-kilograms but are designed to bear loads of up to 900-kilograms during dramatic maneuvers. The Elektra One’s electric motor – the main thing that makes it fly – weighs in at just 4.56-kilograms but is capable of generating 4-kilowatts or around 5-horsepower that drives a highly-efficient propeller design – capable of converting over 85% of its rotational energy into forward thrust - to send it into flight.

And fly it does using current rechargeable lithium iron phosphate batteries that still have less power-to-weight ratio than conventional petrol-fueled aircraft piston engines. But if rechargeable battery technology advances to the point where their power-to-weight ratio equals that or exceed petrol-fueled piston engines, then battery-powered propeller airplanes could truly represent the more environmentally-friendly future of aviation; unless of course another clever aviation engineer could figure out on how to make battery-powered jet engines.