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More electric planes, maybe, but just how much electric?

1 min read

Air travel, despite the efforts of some to discourage its use on environmental grounds, is big business – not only for aircraft manufacturers, but also for operators. Its popularity is indicated by the fact that, at peak times, around 10,000 commercial aircraft will be aloft. Yet the economics of air travel are such that everyone involved in the business is looking for ‘efficiencies’ – everything from less expensive aircraft to those which consume less fuel.

One way to contribute to the latter goal is to reduce the weight of the aircraft; the less it weighs, the less fuel is required to get it off the ground and keep it in the air. And manufacturers are looking to do this using electrical and electronic technology.

Traditionally, aircraft have used mechanical and hydraulic actuation for the things that move, including the flaps and landing gear. Replacing these systems which electrical actuation will cut aircraft weight, the thinking goes. But such a move will also require more efficient use of the power generated by the aircraft. And this isn’t trivial; a Boeing 777 is capable of generating 1MW of power when in the air.

The approach is called ‘more electric aircraft’. Taking this thinking to its logical conclusion, you arrive at the ‘all electric aircraft’. While Solar Impulse has demonstrated the potential for solar powered flight, there remains a long way to go before that goal is reached.

While mechanical and hydraulic systems are well proven in the air, electronic components are less so. This, coupled with factors such as wide temperature operating ranges and vibration, means there is still a lot of work to be done.

Microsemi is one of the companies looking to exploit the opportunities of more electric aircraft, with the establishment of a dedicated R&D centre in Ireland. It is looking to develop more integrated products which address power conversion and actuation. But the technology which will drive these areas is still to be determined. Silicon carbide is a possibility, but a Microsemi executive notes the industry has been ‘reluctant’ to use SiC in flight critical applications.

Projections suggest 30,000 new aircraft will have been delivered by 2033. While electronics can play an even greater role in these planes, it will be interesting to see just how many of these are more electric aircraft and whether, in the longer term, passengers will be happy with flying in planes powered simply by electric fans.