Making barely more noise than a domestic hairdryer, the world’s first ever airplane completely powered by electricity took to the skies for its maiden flight at an airport near Bordeaux in southwestern France Friday.
Called the E-Fan, the small experimental aircraft designed by Toulouse-based Airbus measures little more than 6 metres from nose to tail, but could prove to be a key step towards greener, quieter and cheaper air travel.
Powered by 120 lithium-ion polymer batteries, the plane’s first official flight lasted less than 10 minutes, though the plane has the capability to fly for around an hour before recharging.
Watching the flight, France’s Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg heralded the E-Fan as a “new frontier of technological and ecological innovation” that would “change the world of aeronautics”.
With a top speed of only 220kmh and space for just a pilot and one passenger, the E-Fan is unlikely to be replacing traditional commercial aircraft just yet, however.
Electric jumbo jets
But engineers hope that as the as the technology develops, ever larger aircraft can be powered either entirely with electricity or using a hybrid system.
The E-Fan is “the first step” in the production of “successive generations of electric planes of increasing sizes, with the goal of building electric-powered jumbo jets within the next 20 years,” said Montebourg.
The benefits to the environment of reaching that goal could be immense. Currently, aircraft account for a significant share of global carbon emissions, with a return flight from London to New York producing around an eighth of the average Westerner’s annual carbon footprint for each passenger on board.
It could also make air travel significantly cheaper – an hour long flight in the E-Fan costs around 12 euros to power – compared with around 40 euros for a conventional plane of the same size.
Airbus now plans to put two versions of the E-Fan into production – the two-seater, fully electric E-Fan 2.0 training aircraft and a hybrid four-seater hybrid version known as the E-Fan 4.0 to be used for both training and general flight purposes.