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Aircraft electrification: why future flight depends on innovation today
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"Aircraft electrification: why future flight depends on innovation today"

It’s clear that aircraft electrification will happen -- it’s a question of when, rather than if, this transition occurs. Yes, commercial air travel on all-electric aircraft may be a long way in the future, but the market opportunities are immense for those involved in making this a reality.

For more than a century, aircraft have primarily been powered by carbon-based fuels such as kerosene or gasoline. These fuels contain a lot of energy for their weight and provide the power to lift the largest airliners. However, as a major contributor to CO2 emissions, and with dwindling oil resources, the future of aviation is dependent on finding an alternative power source.

The switch to electric propulsion in aircraft is one such area of investigation. The E-Fan X, for example, is a hybrid-electric aircraft, currently being jointly developed by Airbus, Rolls Royce, and Siemens. By replacing one of the turbofans used in a regular aircraft with a 2MW liquid-cooled electric motor, its developers hope to boost power for take-off and climb as well as facilitating an electric-only descent, which would significantly lower fuel burn and local atmospheric emissions. However, reduced emissions are not the only driver of electrification within aviation.

Electric planes really do have the potential to transform the way we work, travel, and live. For instance, many people want to live in the countryside, but are prohibited by a lack of rural employment opportunities. Electrification would enable them to commute, via air, to local cities for work. And within cities themselves, it would facilitate short journeys using 4-6 seat taxi planes – making it easy to quickly travel from south to north London, or from San Francisco to Palo Alto, for example.

Of course, there is also a huge commercial opportunity – electrification can stand to make short-haul air travel cost-effective for providers, with additional revenue coming from urban travel and longer flying hours.

So, what’s limiting the trajectory of this air travel revolution?

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