Last June, a large airfield surrounded by farmland in Washington State saw the first electric airplane take off and fly in a historic day for the aviation industry.
The companies behind the “eCaravan” were AeroTEC and MagniX, suppliers of the aircraft’s electric motor. If they had used conventional fuel, the cost of the flight would have reached $300-400. Because they used electricity, the Cessna spent an estimated mere $6.
This wasn’t the first time MagniX had tried an electric motor; however, its lithium-ion battery density of 250 Wh (watt-hours per kilogram) still had a significant promise to fill compared to fuel’s 12,000 Wh per kilo. An Airbus A380 would be able to fly 621 miles (1,000 km) with batteries, versus its standard range of 9,321 miles (15,000 km). Plus, the batteries would weigh 30 times more than fuel.
But MagniX has announced they have bigger plans on the horizon. By partnering with Universal Hydrogen, an end-to-end fuel logistics company, they’ve managed to convert a De Havilland Canada DHC8-Q300 into a hydrogen fuel cell electric powertrain.
MagniX creates electric propulsion systems for commercial aviation that include motors, inverters, and controllers. The driving force behind the company’s innovative technologies is to make flight cleaner, lower in cost, and more accessible.
Their propulsion system burns no fuel, makes less noise, and produces zero carbon emissions. This is particularly important considering that aviation is a key source of greenhouse gases, generating about 5% of all man-made carbon emissions globally.
But electric motors are not just cleaner. Because MagniX systems require less maintenance, they also can reduce the cost to fly per hour by 80% and allow operators to provide more short-distance flights, on-demand, using a wider variety of routes.
MagniX is already powering two real aircraft in flight. In December 2019, the eBeaver (a De Havilland Beaver seaplane operated by Harbour Air) was retrofitted with a Magni500 750-horsepower electric motor. This made it the world’s first all-electric commercial aircraft in Canada. And this year, a larger 208B Cessna Grand Caravan (or eCaravan) was developed in partnership with AeroTec. Its Magni500 took to the skies at Moses Lake, Washington, in May 2020.
The company has won several awards, including Most Innovative Company in Energy and Innovation of the Year, and made the cheerful-sounding lists, “19 things that made the world a better place in 2019” and “20 reasons to celebrate 2020.”
Los Angeles startup Universal Hydrogen specializes in developing carbon-free flight using hydrogen-powered electric aircraft.
The company is also working on developing holistic systems that can provide more efficient and safer transport systems for moving hydrogen on trucks and trains using kevlar-coated pods.
MagniX and Universal Hydrogen have just converted the turboprop De Havilland Canada DHC8-Q300 (or Dash 8) into a machine powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The aircraft has a propulsion system with 2-megawatts for each wing, a significant increase from MagniX’s motors of 280 to 560 kilowatts.
Although the conversion will reduce seat capacity from 50 to 40 passengers, the Dash 8 conversion could pave the way for transforming regional flight from an old, expensive, and polluting technology into a low-cost clean solution.
The companies communicated that the same adaptation could also be applied to the ATR-42 twin-turboprops, leaders in regional travel up to 90 seats.
The partnership between MagniX and Universal Hydrogen demonstrates that there’s great market viability for hybrid propulsion systems based on hydrogen and electricity.
MagniX has a track record as a leader in aerospace-grade electric propulsion, while Universal Hydrogen has shown that its encompassing mission of turning hydrogen into dry freight has solid foundations. Together, the companies could bring scalable, proven technologies to the next level of electric aviation.
Recently, EasyJet partnered with the aviation start-up Wright Electric to design a prototype of a 180-seat fully electric jet that would fly 311 miles (500 km). If successful, it could roam the skies as soon as 2030 — producing less than a third of today’s emissions.
The first aircraft will likely be hybrids, with propulsion provided by both batteries and electric motors alongside traditional combustion systems. Many of them might use existing airplane bodies, which makes them easier to develop.
The number of projects based on electric-powered aircraft increased by 30% between 2018 and 2020. Some new concepts have also generated great interest, like the 100-seater E-Fan X, a joint project between Airbus, Siemens, and Rolls-Royce.
The electric aircraft market is estimated to reach $121.8 million by 2023. With aviation being the only industry in which CO2 emissions are increasing, carbon-free power definitely offers a brighter future for investors and passengers alike.
About the Author
Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.