Abstract

Ever since the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903, commercial aircraft have relied on liquid hydrocarbon fuels. However, the need for greenhouse gas emission reductions along with recent progress in battery technology for automobiles has generated strong interest in electric propulsion in aviation. This Analysis provides a first-order assessment of the energy, economic and environmental implications of all-electric aircraft. We show that batteries with significantly higher specific energy and lower cost, coupled with further reductions of costs and CO2 intensity of electricity, are necessary for exploiting the full range of economic and environmental benefits provided by all-electric aircraft. A global fleet of all-electric aircraft serving all flights up to a distance of 400–600 nautical miles (741–1,111 km) would demand an equivalent of 0.6–1.7% of worldwide electricity consumption in 2015. Although lifecycle CO2 emissions of all-electric aircraft depend on the power generation mix, all direct combustion emissions and thus direct air pollutants and direct non-CO2 warming impacts would be eliminated.

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The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

Research underlying this work was made possible by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EP/P511262/1) and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (grant number 1122374). We thank M. Schofield, J. Sabnis and R. Gardner for discussions and K. Al Zayat for early contributions to this work.

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Affiliations

  1. Air Transportation Systems Laboratory, UCL Energy Institute, University College London, Central House, London, UK

    • Andreas W. Schäfer
    • , Khan Doyme
    • , Lynnette M. Dray
    •  & Aidan O’Sullivan
  2. Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA

    • Steven R. H. Barrett
    •  & Albert R. Gnadt
  3. Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton, UK

    • Rod Self
    • , Athanasios P. Synodinos
    •  & Antonio J. Torija

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Contributions

A.W.S. led the overall study, the analysis of the results and the preparation of the manuscript. S.R.H.B. led the all-electric aircraft performance study and contributed to the analysis of the results and to the preparation of the manuscript. R.S. led the all-electric aircraft noise study and contributed to the preparation of the manuscript. A.R.G. carried out the all-electric aircraft performance simulations and contributed to the preparation of the manuscript. L.M.D. carried out the analysis of the results. K.D. and A.O’S. contributed to the analysis of the results. A.P.S. and A.J.T. contributed to the all-electric aircraft noise study.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andreas W. Schäfer.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-018-0294-x