Saturday, May 17, 2008

Electric Airplanes Take Flight

Is it possible to be a practicing environmentalist and also a practicing private pilot? My own answer to that question lately has been, no, but I have been searching for an alternative to the typical aviation fuel guzzlers so I can get back up in the atmosphere without destroying it. One alternative that is flying now is a self-powered electric glider, the Taurus Electro. Slovenian glider manufacturer Pipistrel mated a 48 horsepower electric motor to their Taurus self-powered glider to create the new aircraft (the former model is gas-powered). The lithium-polymer battery pack weighs 101 pounds and provides enough power to climb to 6,000 feet at a climb rate of 560 feet per minute. The battery pack recharges about as quickly as a cell phone and the Taurus Electro offers the same performance as the gasoline-powered Taurus. Priced 33% more than a Tesla Electric Roadster, it will sell for around $133,000 and will begin deliveries later this year to an exclusive few.

While making 4-hour drives to meetings in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky I often wonder wistfully when a plane might be invented that would get me there quicker and with less fuel than my Prius consumes. If I took the current model Taurus Electro, a trip of that length would only be possible if I folded the prop into the fuselage and caught some updrafts along the way. But there is an active effort to encourage the development of more practical electric aircraft, including some that would recharge themselves via photovoltaics while parked at the landing strip. Boeing has also tested a Dimona hybrid fuel cell/lithium-ion battery electric motor-glider that is also a two-seater.

The CAFE Foundation is promoting Personal Air Vehicles or PAVs and offering prize money for the first aircraft that can fly 100 miles per hour and get 100 miles per gallon.

Pipistrel makes a light sport plane called the Virus that is automobile gas powered that can fly over a thousand miles at 170 mph while getting 50 miles per gallon. This plane took top honors at a recent CAFE Foundation PAV Competition sponsored by NASA. That beats the Prius. With continuing advances in battery technology, lighter composite aircraft, smaller and more powerful electric motors, affordable fuel cells, and ultra capacitors there appears to be a future for low-impact personal air vehicles. Stay tuned!


Kevin said...

That looks really, really cool.

I do not have high hopes in general for the airline industry, especially for medium distances. We need to upgrade our passenger trains, starting today. Flights from Indy to Chicago make no sense, for example. A train would get there just as quick, when you factor in the almost inevitable delays, as well as the fact that when you land you are nowhere near the city's center.

William M. Brown, AIA, LEED AP said...


Yes, even current train technology trumps future flight technology. Perhaps Indianapolis can become a crossroads of America again, as the train industry here reinvents itself.

Interesting that Boeing is investing in electric powered flight. Perhaps they have seen the writing on the wall, rendered in $120/barrel oil.