Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Electric plane idea keeps show abuzz

OSHKOSH, Wis. — An electric airliner?
Imagine a hyper-efficient aircraft as large as a Boeing 737, although weighing much less. It would run quieter and cleaner than any other commercial plane ever made, requiring two-thirds less energy, according to NASA-funded re-search.

The hybrid-powered jetliner of the future would operate on batteries or jet fuel, depending on whether it's cruising or taking off and climbing, when the most thrust is required.

The concept of electric aircraft generated a re-sounding buzz amid the drone of pistons and the roar of gas turbine jet engines at the Experimental Aircraft Association's an-nual AirVenture air show, which wrapped up Sunday at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh.

Boeing at work

Boeing is working on a concept plane called the SUGAR Volt that would use turbine engines and electric motors connected to the fans to more efficiently propel the electric airliner.

On flights of up to 900 miles, the SUGAR Volt would cruise almost exclusively on battery power, said Marty Bradley, a technical fellow at Boeing's Research and Technology division in Huntington Beach, Calif.

An electric propulsion system would help slash the amount of fuel burned as well as noise around airports by about 70 percent compared with today's airliner fleet, say aerospace researchers who believe they can have such a flying machine up and running by about 2035.

That's a critical environmental issue. The number of commercial flights will double or triple over the next 50 years, according to some estimates.

Prize is offered

On a smaller scale, a competition is under way to develop by next year a personal commuter aircraft that operates on electricity or fuel cells and can average at least 100 mph on a 200-mile flight while achieving greater than 200 passenger mpg.

The Green Flight Challenge, sponsored by NASA and the CAFE Foundation, offers a $1.5 million first prize for the aircraft with the best performance.

Some of the competing teams presented their de-signs at the Oshkosh air show.

"The concept is winnable. The engineering still needs to get done," said Jack Langelaan, an assistant professor at Penn State.

Weight a problem

Small planes or jumbos, disadvantages include the weight of battery packs and the lack of range that current battery technology provides.

Among the major challenges is improving the amount of power a battery can store for a given weight, said Stephen Beecher, director of advanced technology for power management at GE Aviation.

Electric propulsion will be a "game-changer and transform aeronautics in the next 20 to 30 years," predicted Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer and conceptual design expert at NASA.

Moore said the first breakthroughs will be with small aircraft, personal air vehicles that will replace the automobile on some trips; an expansion of unmanned aerial vehicles, currently used by the military, to civilian use; followed by much more environmentally re-sponsible commercial transport planes.

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