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Electric aircraft charges for the runway

01 May, 2002

Electric aircraft charges for the runway

The world`s first electrically-powered piloted aircraft could soon take to the skies. An American organisation is building a two-seater aircraft which will be powered initially by a 20kWh lithium-ion battery pack, giving it a 160km range. If all goes to plan, the batteries will be replaced later by a 25-75kW fuel cell system, extending the plane`s range to 800km.

The Electra-Plane is the brainchild of James Dunn, who is credited with inventing the laptop PC when he worked for IBM in 1981. He is now executive director of the non-profit Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology Education (Fastec), which is developing the plane. NASA has chosen the project as one of 15 that it is backing under its "Revolutionary AeroPropulsion" programme.

Dunn believes that fuel-cell powered planes will create "a new paradigm for flight". This view is backed by NASA predictions that within 50 years most new production aircraft will be hydrogen-powered because of stricter emission standards, and diminishing oil supplies.

The Electra-Plane is based on a French-built DynAero Lafayette III aircraft (shown above) which is formed largely from lightweight carbon fibre composites. The motive power will come from a 53kW brushless permanent magnet motor supplied by Colorado-based UQM Technologies, which specialises in lightweight, high-torque motors for transport applications.

"We expect to drive the propeller directly, without using a gearbox or speed reducer," says Dunn. The plane`s most efficient cruising speed will be around 130-145 km/h, but it could reach speeds of more than 300 km/h by using the full power of a 75kW fuel cell system.

Fastec says that fuel-cell-powered electric planes should be simpler to build and maintain, will produce no emissions, and will be inherently quiet. Although expensive today, they could eventually cost less than traditional aircraft, the organisation predicts. The technology could also have military stealth applications.

The Electra-Plane is not designed to be commercialised in its present form. It is intended primarily to demonstrate emerging technologies such as fuel cells and electric drives. Fastec is also planning to build a second electric aircraft, based on an Austrian motorised glider.

Boeing is also developing an electrically-powered aircraft, but this is not due to take off until 2004.




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