Battery-powered air travel is not currently commercially viable simply because the energy storage capacity of batteries has yet to compensate for their heavy weight. A lot of companies are eyeing the possibility as energy density is improving and we have seen some progress with Airbus’’ E-Fan being the first electric plane to successfully fly across the English Channel.
Now a new startup is trying the more ambitious goal of building a battery-powered 150-seat plane to compete with 737-size aircrafts in the market for short-haul trips (under 300 miles).
The new company called Wright Electric stepped out of stealth mode this week at Y Combinator Demo Day.
“Wright Electric announced it’s building an 150-seat plane to disrupt the 737 market. It’s struck a partnership with budget British airline EasyJet, which could put its design in the air. And it even showed off its own electric plane in the parking lot.”
Considering flights under 300 miles consist of 30% of flights and that Boeing and Airbus sold close to 1,000 of those regional airplanes for about $90 million each last year, it’s definitely a huge market. Even if the starting price is higher, the cost of fuel is such a significant portion of the operating cost for airlines that the return on investment could be quick if the batteries are recharged with cheap electricity.
Wright Electric, which is obviously named after the Wright brothers, poached engineers from NASA’s program for developing electric aircraft.
They don’t plan on developing their own battery technology, but they want to develop the architecture for an electric plane and add the battery tech from suppliers as it improves.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who revealed having his own design for a VTOL electric plane, says that such a system becomes possible once battery energy density reaches over 400 Wh/kg, while his Tesla vehicles are believed to be currently powered by battery cells with ~250 Wh/kg.
It’s improving every year and several new technologies are promising much higher energy density. Wright Electric’s vision for battery-powered flights is likely possible, but the timeline is less clear.
Featured Image: Wright Electric co-founder Jeff Engler presents at Y Combinator Demo Day via Techcrunch