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Funding the All-electric Aircraft

Superconducting motorToday, Philippe Masson of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and Center for Advanced Power Systems and colleagues at NASA and Georgia Tech publish details of an entirely new class of aircraft engine that, if it takes off, could lead to an all-electric aircraft that would cut airport pollution and reduce aircraft vapor trails to a distant memory. You can read my write-up about the work on the AlphaGalileo site here.

Unfortunately, while the science is sound, no one is yet beating a path to the inventors’ door, despite NASA backing. I asked Masson why he thought this was the case and his answer provides some cutting insights into the nature of the transport industry and the manufacturers that currently underpin it.

First off he pointed out that, “Conventional jet engines (turbofans) are very reliable and can still be improved: people are still working on NOx and noise reduction (including as part of our NASA sponsored project),” he says, “Therefore, there is a lot of inertia and imposing a new and totally different technology would be very difficult.” The major advantage of using electrical power is environment preservation because the performance of an all-electric aircraft would be unchanged unless one takes into account increased controllability and decreased maintenance requirements.

Masson’s electric jet is based on using zero-resistance superconducting materials as the magnetic components of the turbo-driving motor, but he points out that these, and cryogenic support systems needed to make them work, are still very expensive thus making funding difficult to find. It is possible that mass production would reduce costs to an economically viable level, but that is probably not going to happen any time soon.

“The motor designs we proposed can exhibit impressive power densities that would unfortunately almost only benefit airborne applications, there are no other applications with critical constraints in terms of weight and volume,” he told me, “As for the car industry in which combustion engine manufacturers are putting a lot of pressure to prevent new clean technologies to take off, jet engine manufacturers would not be happy to see electrical propulsion systems becoming a new standard.”

“An all-electric aircraft prototype is feasible,” he adds, “but imposing this technology as a replacement to gas turbines would still require a lot of research and development to meet flight requirements in terms of reliability.” However, Masson asserts that the appearance of increasingly electrical airliners from both Airbus and Boeing could hint at a future of all-electric aircraft. “I am convinced that one day in a not so far future we will see small electrically powered aircraft,” he says. He concedes that, “It will be years, probably tens of years, before we can see a truly all-electrical aircraft as all the components require extensive testing and a very high reliability before being implemented in airplanes.”

Masson and his colleagues have approached several companies and aircraft manufacturers and have not yet been successful in getting funding to build a prototype of their superconducting propulsion motor for which patents are pending. “We are still hopeful and will keep looking for funding,” he says.

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