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Airbus quietly shows off big ambitions for carbon free jets

Crikey, 26 April 2014

Imagine an all electric 90 seat regional airliner able to fly at turbo-prop speeds for up to three hours operating Canberra-Sydney/Melbourne or major rural routes like those from Wagga Wagga, Coffs Harbour or Dubbo. An airliner with zero fossil carbon emissions, if the batteries were charged from solar power ‘fuel’ farms, mostly near or on airports. Flights that would be quieter than a breeze on approach or departure over suburbs near airports.

These startling possibilities arise from an E-Fan Day held by the Airbus Group at Bordeaux yesterday.

It was a remarkably low key event, but Tim Robinson, editor in chief of Aerospace the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society tweeted photos and observations that indicate how significant the E-Fan project is, both for GA or general aviation in the immediate term, and higher capacity airline operations in the medium term.

Robinson can be followed here.

The first intended commercial application of the E-Fan all electric aircraft technology is a two seater suited to general aviation flight training and glider towing roles, and it made its first public flight at Bordeaux yesterday.

The first flight of all occurred on 11 March. The aircraft which uses lithium polymer (Li-Po) batteries to store energy, takes off at 110 kmh at sea level and cruises at 160 kms for between 30-60 minutes, depending on what you might be doing with it.

Recharging the batteries from the grid (in France some 80% derived from nuclear power plants) takes 30 minutes. It is intended to go into commercial production in 2017 at a price comparable to light aircraft used for similar purposes.

Robinson tweeted a number of instructive images from the event which can be found on his twitter account.

Shown below is but one of them, of a model of what appears set to be the second E-Fan offering, a four seater hybrid electric and combustion engine power generating augmentation arrangement which could extended its range from around three hours to four and a half hours.

Twitter photo of 4 seat E-Fan model by Tim Robinson

Those who have followed the distributed E-fan powered proposals for larger airliners, will understand the significance of hybrid power augmentation plans for the four seater.

Such “E-thrust” plans are intended for low to zero emissions longer range and larger capacity airliners. These airliners, for a more distant future, would buffer as well as distribute to banks of E-fan engines a power supply generated on board by liquid fuel derived ultimately from zero fossil carbon emitting algal fuels, or lower polluting bio-fuel blends, perhaps including lower fossil carbon containing liquid gas fuel.

These plans have by and large not escaped from the confines of technical journals, although they have been written up several times by Plane Talking.

Tim Robinson tweeted that the Airbus Group’s goal was for a 90 seat electrically powered regional E-fan airliner with a range of up to three hours. It is easy to imagine that at a competitive cost to acquire and run beside conventional large turbo-props, slightly larger than today’s Q400s and ATRs, and with the benefits of a carbon trading scheme, such an airliner would have a very substantial role to play in world aviation and ‘green’ energy technologies in general.

If highly reliable 90 passenger regional E-Fan airliners with Sydney-Adelaide range are in service in the middle to latter part of the next decade, further advances into 200-300 passenger jets electric with the capacity to take over Melbourne-Sydney or even transcontinental and trans Tasman routes would be inevitable.

They are needed.

What was shown off at Bordeaux could thus prove pivotal for the development of air transport that eliminates fossil carbon release into the atmosphere.