Where are the electric planes and ships?

Charging station for boats, electrical outlets to charge ships in harbor.

There is often much discussion around electric transportation replacing carbon-emitting vehicles but it is more often than not limited to road transportation such as motorcycles, passenger cars, buses, and trucks in mainstream conversations. Aircrafts and ships are usually not part of the conversation. However, when discussing strategies to reduce CO2 emissions from transportation, it is also important to factor in the aviation and shipping industries. The two sectors make up 2.4% and 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, respectively, and thus are not to be overlooked.

Due to the size and capacity of planes and ships, as well as how they are used, electrifying large vessels is not as easy as doing the same for cars or buses. The energy demand and thus battery capacity needed is much greater and battery technology has yet to reach a place where it can efficiently, both technologically and financially, replace conventional planes and ships. Despite the difficulties, various companies and organizations are currently developing and testing electric aircrafts and ships. There are both smaller fully electric vessels, and hybrid versions being tested for short-range travel, the first step into taking air and maritime travel closer to becoming fully electric.

The benefits of going electric

As with electric cars and buses, the benefits of going electric in air and maritime travel are numerous. The biggest reasons and often the most compelling factors are the environmental and health benefits. As previously mentioned, together they make up almost 5% of global carbon emissions. Reducing the impact of these industries on climate change is significant. Pollutants like nitrogen oxide from planes and sulphur from ships also lead to many adverse health risks and consequences. Reports have stated that pollutants from plane emissions have led to around 16,000 premature deaths every year. Other reports have found that shipping causes around 400,000 premature deaths due to lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases and around 14 million childhood asthma cases annually. Eliminating the need for fuel all together by electrifying planes and ships can greatly reduce the release of these harmful pollutants into the environment.

Planes and ships also contribute heavily to noise pollution. High levels of noise can also adversely affect human health leading to an increase in stress and cardiovascular diseases. It can also affect the delicate natural balance in wildlife by interfering with communication between animals. Some countries like the United Kingdom and Germany have introduced flight bans at night to reduce the effect of excess noise on communities around airports. As electric engines are much quieter than jet and diesel engines, going electric can alleviate these issues.

Looking beyond the environmental and health advantages of electric planes and ships, going electric can also be more cost efficient. Jet fuel is one of the biggest operating costs of airplanes. With the advent of renewable energy, the cost of electric energy will continue to decrease. Moreover, with fewer parts, electric engines are much easier to service than conventional engines. Together, these effectively reduce costs by at least 40% with lower maintenance and energy costs.

Why are electric planes and ships not yet mainstream?

One of the biggest reasons why we have yet to see electric ships and planes is the battery. Currently, batteries only store 1/40th of the energy content of the equal weight of jet fuel, taking it only 1/20th of the distance. Moreover, as fuel is consumed, the weight of the plane or ship decreases, burning less fuel at the same speed over time. However, the weight of batteries will not reduce as its energy is drained, thus requiring a consistent release of energy throughout the entire trip. 

The issue of charging is another huge question with larger vessels. While small planes and boats can land and quickly recharge after short trips, the option is not present during long-distance trips. Larger vessels with larger batteries would also take a long time to charge. In order to guarantee enough energy for a long-range trip, aircrafts and vessels would either have to carry more or larger batteries, or be able to generate energy onboard with renewable energy technology.

From the perspective of regulation, it’s difficult to standardize safety measures and requirements as air and maritime travelling involves cross-border cooperation. This is one reason why aviation and shipping industries are not often discussed in national climate plans. However, private players and companies are working to help these industries take the next step. 

Where are we now and what’s next?

As it was with cars and buses, the first step to electric planes and ships are hybrid models.  Companies like Ampair, an LA-based clean tech company, have created hybrid-electric aircrafts for short-range flights. The Ampaire 337 plane is a six-seater Cessna 337 Skymaster, retrofitted with an electric propulsion system, replacing one of the two combustion engines with a battery-powered electric motor. 

Private aircraft producer Pipstrel is one of the few companies that currently produce all-electric battery powered planes. Because of battery limitations, they are used mainly as training or light sport aircrafts. Until battery technology can catch up to the efficiency of jet fuel, it is likely that hybrid and all-electric planes will be limited to small, regional aircrafts. 

In maritime travel, Nowegian explorer cruise line, Hurtigruten, launched the first hybrid electric-powered expedition ship. The ship collects excess and unneeded energy from the engines and stores them in the batteries. When the engine needs extra energy, it would be drawn from the batteries. The ship is also able to run on battery power alone for limited periods. All in all, the batteries allow the engines to operate at optimum levels, reduces energy waste, and lowers carbon emissions by 20%.

Japanese corporations are also hoping to launch the first all-electric propulsion cargo ship by 2021. If they are successful in developing an efficient cargo ship, it would be ground breaking in reducing the amount of emissions from the shipping industry.

Demands on the battery are greater than ever before. As the sense of urgency increases, the hope of greener technology leans on battery development. Having safe and efficient battery testing equipment greatly enhances the research and development processes. Moreover, with larger vessels like planes and ships, so much more is at stake if a battery malfunctions or causes thermal runaway. Isolating the factors that cause these issues is key to developing batteries that will safely and efficiently service these vessels and take the aviation and shipping industries into the future.

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Arbin Team

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