Battery technology improvements are expected to soon enable electric flight and companies in the field are preparing their powertrain technology to support it.
In a major move toward that goal, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens have announced a new partnership to gradually convert a plane to electric propulsion.
The project they are collaborating on is the ‘E-Fan X’, a BAe 146 plane on which they are testing their electric motor technology.
During ground tests, they already replaced one of the four gas turbines by a two-megawatt electric motor.
Paul Eremenko, Airbus’s CTO, commented on the project:
“The E-Fan X is an important next step in our goal of making electric flight a reality in the foreseeable future. The lessons we learned from a long history of electric flight demonstrators, starting with the Cri-Cri, including the e-Genius, E-Star, and culminating most recently with the E-Fan 1.2, as well as the fruits of the E-Aircraft Systems House collaboration with Siemens, will pave the way to a hybrid single-aisle commercial aircraft that is safe, efficient, and cost-effective. We see hybrid-electric propulsion as a compelling technology for the future of aviation.”
Once they better test and understand the first electric motor, they will replace a gas turbine with another one and batteries will support takeoff and climbing.
Here are the roles of each member of the new partnership:
- Airbus will be responsible for overall integration as well as the control architecture of the hybrid-electric propulsion system and batteries, and its integration with flight controls.
- Rolls-Royce will be responsible for the turbo-shaft engine, two megawatt generator, and power electronics. Along with Airbus, Rolls-Royce will also work on the fan adaptation to the existing nacelle and the Siemens electric motor.
- Siemens will deliver the two megawatt electric motors and their power electronic control unit, as well as the inverter, AC/DC converter, and power distribution system. This comes on top of the E-Aircraft Systems House collaboration between Airbus and Siemens, launched in 2016, which aims at development and maturation of various electric propulsion system components and their terrestrial demonstration across various power classes.
In terms of commercial aircraft, this is likely the biggest electrification effort to date.
Both Siemens and Airbus have separately produced all-electric aircraft, but those were much smaller planes. Airbus’ E-Fan was the first electric plane to successfully fly across the English Channel and Siemens’ electric plane set new records for a top speed of 340 km/h (211 mph) and first electric aerotow.
But this new effort is for a larger commercial aircraft.
Those are not likely to go electric until some major improvements in energy density for batteries, but it looks like they are focusing on electric motors and controls to be ready when batteries do catch up.