What the Concorde was to the kerosene guzzlers – the timelessly most beautiful airplane of all time – could be in a more modest form an electric airplane called Alice for the first generation of sustainable flying. Its maiden flight took place on September 27, 2022 at Moses Lake Airport in Washington State, a world premiere.

The nine-seat Alice is the only airliner designed from the ground up to fly exclusively on battery power, built by Eviation, a company founded in Israel and now based in the US Pacific Northwest. Alice looks very attractive, but the aesthetic design only serves to optimize her flight characteristics.

No longer designed as a typical tube with wings and empennage attached, it looks more like a slender whale with a sharply cut nose that slopes downward, long narrow wings and a fuselage that is broad in the middle and tapers towards the rear. The hull shape itself provides additional buoyancy to help lift the batteries’ immense weight of over three and a half tons into the air. Two Magni650 electric motors, each with 634 kW (850 hp), are attached to the T-shaped tail unit, which should enable a cruising speed of 407 km/h.

The big problem with electric airplanes is also evident in Alice: The batteries are still too big, too heavy and don’t provide enough energy for efficient and longer flights. After the successful first flight of just eight minutes, the company again dramatically reduced the targeted range – to just 445 kilometers instead of the previous 815.

This means that electric aircraft can initially only be used in niche markets, but they are still in demand: “Purely electric flying is very sexy because it has a very high electrical efficiency of 90 percent, for example if you charge the batteries with electricity from wind energy,” explains Björn Nagel , Head of the Institute for System Architectures at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Hamburg.

The first deliveries to Alice customers are already planned for 2027, “provided the battery technology develops as we assume”, says Eviation boss Gregory Davis, and the certification is going according to plan. And there are quite a few customers: the first buyer was Cape Air from the north-east of the USA with 75 announced orders, the charter company GlobalX Airlines wants 50 Alice, and Deutsche Post has ordered twelve of them in the freight version for DHL.

There is already a German passenger company in the list of customers: Evia Aero, a “sustainable regional airline” from Bremen that is currently being set up, has signed a letter of intent to purchase 25 Alice. And at the end of 2022, she received encouragement from the first major passenger airline: Air New Zealand signed options for 23 copies. In mid-January another order for 30 Alice came from Mexico.

Work is also being done on electric drives for aircraft in the south of Munich, with Airbus in Ottobrunn already running various hybrid drives, for example for air taxis, in laboratory tests. Not far from there, Rolls-Royce Electrical is also on the trail of the future of flight on the Siemens campus in Neuperlach. The test stand, in which a prototype of the Rolls-Royce RRP200D stands well protected from prying eyes by thick steel doors, looks rather inconspicuous. It is intended to initiate the biggest revolution in aircraft engines since the invention of the jet engine in 1937.

The motor itself, however, is hardly noticeable, a metal ring the size of a wagon wheel with a kind of five-armed coil turning inside. Not more. These are the rotor with magnets and the bearings. Incredible minimalism compared to the complex monsters of internal combustion engines, which have around 18,000 moving parts. There are just 18 rotating elements in an electric aircraft engine. It’s a foretaste of the revolution they’re hoping for at Rolls-Royce and much of the airline industry.

The quest for a sustainable, environmentally friendly electric passenger aircraft has come a long way, but is still far from practical in flight. It sounds so nice – analogous to the increasingly widespread electric cars, airplanes should also be able to be powered by battery power that is as green as possible. And thus help to achieve the ambitious industry and EU goals for climate-friendly, sustainable flying by 2035.

The reality looks different. “We are very pessimistic about purely electric passenger flights,” says Björn Nagel from DLR. At Rolls-Royce, the mood is much more positive. Possibly as early as 2026, the nine-seater propeller aircraft Tecnam P-Volt will take off for scheduled flights at the Norwegian regional airline Widerøe – with two of the aforementioned electric motors from Rolls-Royce.

“If it is successful, the engine will only whirr slightly,” hopes Stefan Breunig, head of strategy at Rolls-Royce Electrical. The company tested a 2.5 megawatt generator in the laboratory back in 2019, which could one day electrically power larger regional aircraft with up to 50 seats.

If only there weren’t the tiresome problem of battery capacity. The Tecnam P-Volt will initially have a range of just over 150 kilometers on one battery charge, including the prescribed 30-minute energy reserve. That may be enough to serve certain short routes in Norway, but will be of little use elsewhere.

“I’m skeptical about everything that flies battery-electric because of the range problem, which can actually only serve certain niches. We won’t see any batteries with a significant increase in energy density in the near future either,” says Lars Enghardt, head of the DLR Institute for Electrified Aviation Propulsion in Cottbus. It is clear that there will only be a few applications for the limited possibilities of pure electric drives in commercial aviation, for example in Norway as a pioneering country. Hybrid electric concepts will prevail for longer routes and larger aircraft.

That doesn’t bother Grazia Vittadini. The head of technology at Rolls-Royce, who previously held the same role at Airbus, emphasizes: “We are serious about electric flight and will gradually find meaningful applications for it.” By then we will see airplanes flying fully electric, up to 30-seaters, and for us Norway is the absolute pioneer in Europe.”

The race to fly with green electricity is on.

Autor: Andreas Spaeth

A new regulation will come into force from February 2023: Drivers will soon have to add an important product to their first-aid kit: a medical mask. If a mask is not included in the medical box, a police check could result in a fine of 5 euros.

A new regulation will come into force from February 2023: Drivers will soon have to add an important product to their first-aid kit: a medical mask. If a mask is not included in the medical box, a police check could result in a fine of 5 euros.

The original for this article “The dream of flying with green electricity” comes from Deutsche Welle.