Aerospace & Defense

How Long Until Jets Are Powered by Electric Engines?

Douglas A. McIntyre

British airline EasyJet wants to reduce its carbon footprint. It says one way is to use electric engines. The plan may sound implausible, but it may happen not terribly far in the future.

According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, commercial aviation makes up 2.4% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel engines each year. The figure is for 2018 and is up 32% in the past five years. Predictions say that will worsen. As is true with cars, only electric engines can decrease this figure radically.

Airbus (one of the two largest commercial aircraft makers in the world), Rolls-Royce (which makes jet engines) and Siemens (among the world’s largest conglomerates) believe they can test an electric jet engine as early as next year. If they reach this goal, their managements believe, the engines could go into commercial operation by 2025. Airbus has jumped ahead of Boeing in sales and recently sold 300 planes to India’s IndiGo Airlines.

The engine project of the three companies is called E-Fan X. If it works, Airbus management says, it will be “a giant leap towards achieving zero-emission flight over the next 20 years.” It may become one of the ways that technology has changed the world in the past couple of decades.

The primary question about the goal is whether it is reasonable, since it would be a huge change in the way jet engines work. One hopeful sign is the rise in technology and sales of electric cars. However, a Tesla S weighs 5,000 pounds and has a range of between 250 and 300 miles, but a Boeing 777 weighs 150 tons and can travel over 9,000 miles. The stretch from electric engines for cars to those for large aircraft is nearly unimaginable. However, the jump from propeller engines to jets was hard to imagine before that changeover.

If electric jet engines work, air travelers could be flying on commercial aircraft powered by them by 2040. In the history of commercial air travel, that is not far off. And it would substantially change the air pollution created from those engines used today.