Move Over Electric Car, The Electric Airplane is Coming

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By Steven Ashley

Several years ago, when the auto industry faced government pressure to minimize its environmental footprint by reducing fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions, manufacturers turned first to hybrid-electric and then battery-electric powertrains that now move Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs.

Today, confronted with substantially the same environmental mandates, the aviation industry has begun gearing up to use those same green power plants to propel aircraft.

The electric car is so yesterday; electric airplanes are coming.

EADS (European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company), the parent firm of Airbus, for example, has been flying a battery electric-powered ultralight aircraft for the last year, and at the recent Paris Air Show it introduced a series-hybrid motor glider as well as an ambitious future concept for an all-electric, 50-seat passenger plane powered by superconducting drive motors. Last fall, Boeing released details of a NASA-funded effort to use a hybrid battery-electric/gas turbine propulsion system to power a future 737-class commercial transport. A few months earlier, at the 2010 Oshkosh event, both Cessna and Sikorsky announced plans to fly some time this year electric-powered demonstrators—respectively, a light plane and a light helicopter.

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Boeing’s SUGAR Volt (Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research) twin-engine future concept airliner. The 737-size transport would be powered by hybrid propulsion system that would combine gas turbine and battery/electric motor technology. Courtesy Boeing

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