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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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NASA's Breakthrough In Battery Tech Paves Way For Electric Aviation

  • Aviation contributes significantly to global CO2 emissions, with growing demand necessitating a shift to cleaner technologies like electric and hydrogen-powered flights.
  • NASA's development of solid-state batteries offers potential for lighter, more efficient aviation use, but current technology still falls short for powering large passenger aircraft.
  • Recent successes in small electric aircraft and ongoing research indicate progress, but the technology for long-haul, large-capacity electric flights is still in the early stages of development.

As governments worldwide put pressure on companies to decarbonise, it has become clear that aviation is one of the most hard to abate industries. With flight and passenger numbers rising – expected to rise to over 6 billion people flying annually by 2030 – it is critical that the industry find a way to reduce emissions. However, battery-powered or hydrogen-fuel commercial flights still appear a long way off. But will greater investment in battery technology help the sector to make this leap?

The aviation sector contributes around 2.4 percent of CO2 emissions globally, a figure that is expected to rise in line with growing demand. In 2023, the International Air Transport Administration (IATA) announced a target of net-zero carbon emissions from flights by 2050. It has broken down its strategy to achieve net zero as 5 percent reliant on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), 13 percent the use of new technology - electric and hydrogen, 3 percent improving infrastructure and operational efficiencies and 19 percent the use of offsets and carbon capture technology. However, the innovations in the technology required for commercial battery-powered flight still appear far off. 

In the U.S., NASA has been working to develop new battery technology that could be used for air travel. Current battery technology only provides enough power for some lighter aircraft, such as drones, it does not yet provide enough power or range for passenger flights. Further, lithium-ion batteries, which are commonly used in electric vehicles (EVs), do not meet the safety standards required for use in commercial aviation due to their flammability. The U.S. Space Agency has been working on an alternative technology that does not contain flammable liquid electrolyte chemicals, giving it the potential to be used in aircraft. 

NASA has been developing solid-state batteries for use in transport through its Solid-state Architecture Batteries for Enhanced Rechargeability and Safety (SABERS) project. These types of batteries have become increasingly popular as they are lighter and more efficient than lithium-ion batteries, and have provided a longer range when tested in EVs. Nasa has developed a prototype sulphur selenium battery that produces 500 watt-hours of energy per kilogram of battery, which is around double the energy density of a standard lithium-ion battery.

Rocco Viggiano, the main investigator for SABERS, explained of Nasa’s solid-state battery “Not only does this design eliminate 30 to 40 percent of the battery’s weight, it also allows us to double or even triple the energy it can store, far exceeding the capabilities of lithium-ion batteries that are considered to be the state of the art.” 

In September, Eviation Aircraft launched the first fixed-wing passenger electric passenger aircraft from Grant County International Airport in the U.S. Alice, as the nine-seater plane was coined, flew at a height of 1,000 metres for eight minutes. This has been followed by a scheduled flight in Australia by Northern Territory Air Services from Darwin to Uluru and Mount Isa. Also in Australia are Sydney Seaplanes, which plans to become the country’s first all-electric airline, and Bader Aero, a firm developing a two-seater electric plane for use in pilot training. In 2021, Bader Aero set a record for completing the longest journey by an electric aircraft. It flew over seven days to achieve an 18-stop flight across South Australia. 

Earlier this year, the Queensland Council of Mayors and U.S. firm Wisk signed a memorandum of understanding to develop four-seater driverless eVTOLs (electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft) to launch as air taxis in Brisbane by 2032. The aircraft looks like a bigger version of a drone with six propellors on each wing. They are expected to have a range of 144km and travel at a speed of up to 120 knots, with a fast charging time of just 15 minutes. 

But while there is great optimism around the potential for battery-powered flight, it will take a huge technological innovation to power larger passenger commercial flights. One of the biggest obstacles to developing the technology required is the weight of the battery. In 2022, in the U.K., the Rolls Royce aviation company developed an aircraft with three 72 kWh batteries, each with 6,000 lithium-ion battery cells and weighing 450 kilogrammes. This was aimed at powering a single-seat plane the 322-km distance between London and Paris. 

Professor Venkat Viswanathan from Carnegie Mellon University co-authored an article that stated that it was possible to make significant gains in battery chemistry for use in aviation by 2030 only if everything went right along the way. And even if this happened, it would not be powerful enough to power the world’s biggest aircraft. This suggests that while battery-powered aircraft are becoming a reality, the technology is likely to be used for only short-haul flights for the foreseeable future. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com


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