The vision of electric linear flight

The vision of electric linear flight

It’s still only a vision of the electric flight of the future – but measured against that, josef kallo already has precise ideas.

There is a good chance that in ten years, the first prototypes with up to 80 passengers will be able to travel on short and, in some cases, medium-haul routes largely without emissions, says the renowned researcher at the german aerospace center (DLR) in stuttgart. In the search for the aircraft of the future, scientists and engineers are focusing on alternative propulsion systems. Kallo relies on large quantities of hydrogen to generate enough electrical energy in fuel cells for passenger planes to take off, fly and land.

Kallo has been researching fuel cells since 1998, and in particular their use in aircraft since 2006. The 46-year-old sees his team as international leaders in this segment and says that, as things stand at present, this form of electric propulsion will be ready for the market and for series production of smaller aircraft around 2030. Then it would be conceivable for airlines to complete part of their flights with hydrogen propulsion. "The technology for this is basically available today, it just needs to be transferred to larger aircraft"."

However, this requires not only a lot of effort, but also a lot of money. The technical development, production and ultimately the certification of such aircraft are extremely expensive and take a very long time, says kallo, who is hoping for significant investment from the industry. If everything works together, it will take another 15 years before aircraft with up to 80 passengers on board will be visible in regular traffic at speeds of between 550 and 600 kilometers per hour and over distances of up to 2,000 kilometers.

Such aircraft could then take over feeder flights to hubs such as frankfurt airport, and the development of regional flight networks between smaller airports is also conceivable. The bottom line could be a significant reduction in emissions.

The search for alternative forms of propulsion is currently driving airlines and aircraft manufacturers like never before. But unlike road transport, flying has so far lacked economically viable low-emission propulsion alternatives – visions such as kallo’s have met with more approval than before in the face of a spreading flight shame. The problem: no known approach has convinced the industry in the long term, with various types of synthetic fuels being the most promising.

Kallo’s approach also has disadvantages, especially economic ones: the performance of fuel cells, for example, falls well short of that of conventional fuel propulsion. Meaning: if airliners are to fly further than 2,000 kilometers, either the number of passengers has had to be reduced or the speed throttled, probably even both. Hardly profitable for large airlines, which often transport many more people from A to B. A lufthansa spokesman says in response to a question: "about 80 percent of flights are on routes longer than 1,500 kilometers. For this reason, there are no equivalent and fast alternatives today or in the foreseeable future, nor are there any new propulsion technologies."

The extent to which aircraft powered by hydrogen and fuel cells become established on the market may also depend crucially on the extent to which the performance of the systems is further improved. The market for this is only just emerging, says kallo, who says he is receiving funding for his research from the federal ministries of economics and transport, as well as from major industrial groups. "The performance of the systems has doubled in the last three years alone," he reports. Further development is difficult to foresee. In short, if more powerful systems were to come on the market, more passengers could be carried at higher speeds.

Those who rely on hydrogen-powered aircraft must, however, plan for powerful tanks because of the lower energy density of hydrogen compared to kerosene. "The tanks therefore had to be three times as coarse as on a conventional aircraft. This would also require larger aircraft, airport terminals, and runways," according to lufthansa. In addition, the storage of coarse hydrogen reserves is time-consuming and energy-intensive. Aviation is still "a long way off" from hydrogen propulsion.

The british rolls-royce group, which manufactures propulsion systems and recently bought the electric flight unit from siemens, is more optimistic. Systems like the one described by kallo are conceivable by 2030, at least for regional air traffic. For example, the company is working with aircraft manufacturer airbus on the development of electric aircraft.

There is, of course, also a political component to the question of aviation propulsion. Driven by social movements such as fridays for future, politicians are under pressure – and are now exerting pressure on the industry for their part. So far, however, little has been done, partly because only small quantities of synthetic fuel are available at very high prices. Lufthansa complains that such fuels are currently three times as expensive as conventional kerosene. Nevertheless, it considers synthetically produced fuels to be "the only real alternative" in the future to "neutralize" emissions in aviation.

Kallo will therefore have to do more work to turn his vision of fuel-cell-powered flight into something more than a niche product. Especially since the whole thing would only be climate-neutral if the large quantities of hydrogen came entirely from renewable energies. In the long term, the scientist is also relying on his colleagues in the automotive industry, where the development of drives with fuel cells and hydrogen is currently gaining momentum. Hundreds of millions of euros have been spent, says kallo, and aviation can only benefit from the development of such high-performance systems.

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