Now that electric cars have hit the mainstream, it raises the question, what about other forms of transportation running on electricity? Specifically, will we ever see electric planes flying over the horizon?

Believe it or not, they’re already here. The battery-powered Yuneec E430 two-seater is currently in production (you can fly away with one for less than a hundred grand). And the Antares 20E sailplane has electric propulsion that can take it to 10,000 feet.

 

Ready to go: The Yuneec E430 above was turning heads at this summer’s Oshkosh Air Show.

But what about commercial flight? You know, the big Trans-Atlantic planes, with flight attendants and snacks? Not only would electric planes make zero-emission flight a reality, but they could fly much more quietly than conventional jets — which would be more pleasant for passengers, and could ultimately bring airports closer to city centers.

Even these are a definite possibility: Pranav Patel, Chief Marketing Officer at GE Aviation Systems, says electric planes the size of 737s could be flying commercial routes by 2040 or 2045.

In fact, the electric evolution is already underway for conventional planes. “If you look at new jets such as Boeing’s Dreamliner and the Joint Strike Fighter, large portions of their systems are [already] electrified,” Patel says.

The next generation of commercial jets will have “more dynamic power management, allowing essentially a ‘SmartGrid on Aircraft,’ with open rotor types of high-efficiency jet engines,” according to Patel. The eventual goal is “electric propulsion zero-emission aircraft,” which will have an open-structure propulsion — so “when the plane becomes all electric, the motor will still have a propeller-type open-fan structure.”

So just how fast will these electric planes fly? As fast — or faster — than today’s conventional jets. “[Electric planes would be] no different than cars today,” says Patel. “Take the electric car and look at the torque and speed it gives you. It’s actually more torque than you get with a regular [gas-powered] engine.”

Granted, that’s not to say that the Chevy Volt is fully comparable to a 747. “The biggest difference between electric cars and electric planes is you need a significantly higher energy density storage system [for planes],” says Patel. “Weight is very important, because with planes you’re talking about the lift, as well as the range.”

In pursuit of that high density power, engineers who will soon be located at Electrical Power Integrated Systems (EPISCENTER), GE’s new electrical-power R&D center in Dayton, Ohio, are working on aircraft systems that will use solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) power, with lithium batteries as intermediate storage.

Here is EPISCENTER’s road map to electric commercial flight:

1. Shrink the on-board components of the plane to roughly one-third of their current weight and volume, (via advances in high power semiconductor devices ).

2. Migrate flight control systems away from hydraulic and into electro-mechanical, in order to integrate with electric propulsion systems.

3. Finalize SOFC fuel cell development. Batteries alone don’t have the power density required for long flights — but will remain an important link in the power chain.

4. Optimize high-speed superconducting motors to make the most efficient use of precious on-board power.

So will there someday be 747’s that run like the Chevy Volt? “Sure,” says Patel. “It’s all about energy-optimized aircraft. Some say 50 or 60 years down the road is aggressive, some say maybe not.”

And oh by the way, how about helicopters? “The short answer is Yes.”

* Learn more about the new electric power R&D center
* Read about GE’s other R&D on advanced batteries and electric vehicles