You would think it were an obvious priority. For some time now, the environmentally harmful effects of air travel have been well-known – almost common knowledge – and the imperative to do something about it has been around for almost as long. To be sure, many airlines and travelers alike do what they can to either reduce or offset the harmful emissions that kerosene-burning airplanes release into the environment, from taking alternative means of travel wherever possible to the cutting out air travel altogether. As is the case with all major polluters though, a true solution must lie in deeper structural change or the development of new technology to offer cleaner solutions.
When it comes to air travel, neither of these forces have been at play, and airplanes seem set to be powered in the just the same way for the foreseeable future. The danger in this state of affairs is that depleting resources or government initiatives might eventually bring to an end to the era of cheap air travel – by pricing it up. Of course, this would be what is known as a sub-optimal solution as well as one that many would hope to avoid. The incentive to rely on new technologies instead is agreed to be the far preferable option. And where air travel is concerned, comparison with other forms of transport only seems natural. If we can have electric cars, then what about electric planes?
Lessons From the Road
It has been more efficient battery technology that has ultimately made the electric car economically viable. Batteries, in fact, offer environmentally friendly solutions to all manner of modern eco concerns. New USB rechargeable smart batteries, for example, are now advanced enough to work out not only more environmentally friendly than disposables, but cheaper too. With massively expanded charge capacities and an extended longevity, such batteries – like those produced by Utah-based company Pale Blue Earth – have been made possible by lithium-ion technology. The same goes for cars.
The electric car revolution has been made possible by a constant labor of research, development, and refinement to the point where lithium-ion batteries can power electric motors to the same level of performance as a fuel engine. It has been a protracted process to get this point, and environmental issues remain. For example, the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries is not the most environmentally friendly process, especially where the mining of the lithium is concerned.
Ultimately, the main stumbling block for the development of electric aircraft is a problem that differs only in kind, and not degree. While all the same processes could be used, the energy required to power an airplane is naturally many times greater than that needed for a single car, and so the battery must be proportionally more powerful and/or efficient. Consider how long it has taken us to make efficient electric vehicles a consumer reality, and it’s easy to see how we’re not quite there yet with planes.
A Slow Process
When nickel-cadmium batteries were invented, the first electric flight took off – but it only lasted 15 minutes. With the invention of the lithium-ion battery, solar power electric planes were flown for considerably longer, but only at speeds of around thirty mph. And there hasn’t really been a major breakthrough since then.
Electric air travel seems like the type of thing that eventually will – or must – become a reality. But planes are just so much bigger than cars and flying is so much more energy-intensive than driving. So, while electric air travel might be on the same path as electric car travel, it is still lagging some way behind.