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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment Open Access 27 October 2023
Rapid battery cost declines accelerate the prospects of all-electric interregional container shipping
Nature Energy Open Access 18 July 2022
Nature Communications Open Access 19 April 2022
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 / 30 days
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 digital issues and online access to articles
$119.00 per year
only $9.92 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.
International Energy Agency World Energy Statistics 2017 (IEA, 2017)
International Energy Agency CO 2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion 2017 (IEA, 2017)
Lee, D. S. et al. Aviation and global climate change in the 21st century. Atmos. Environ. 43, 3520–3537 (2009).
Dorbian, C. S., Wolfe, P. J. & Waitz, I. A. Estimating the climate and air quality benefits of aviation fuel and emissions reductions. Atmos. Environ. 45, 2750–2759 (2011).
Brasseur, G. P. et al. Impact of aviation on climate: FAA’s Aviation Climate Change Research Initiative (ACCRI) phase II. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 97, 561–583 (2016).
European Aviation Safety Agency European Aviation Environmental Report 2016 (EASA, 2016).
Yim, S. H. L. et al. Global, regional and local health impacts of civil aviation emissions. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 034001 (2015).
Wolfe, P. J., Kramer, J. L. & Barrett, S. R. H. Current and future noise impacts of the UK hub airport. J. Air Transp. Manag. 58, 91–99 (2017).
Schäfer, A. W., Evans, A. D., Reynolds, T. G. & Dray, L. Costs of mitigating CO2 emissions from passenger aircraft. Nature Clim. Change 6, 412–417 (2016).
Airbus Global Market Forecast 2017–2037 (Airbus Commercial Aircraft, Toulouse, 2017).
Boeing Current Market Outlook 2017–2036 (Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Seattle, 2017).
Bann, S. J. et al. The costs of production of alternative jet fuel: a harmonized stochastic assessment. Bioresour. Technol. 227, 179–187 (2017).
Stratton, R. W., Wolfe, P. J. & Hileman, J. I. Impact of aviation non-CO2 combustion effects on the environmental feasibility of alternative jet fuels. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 10736–10743 (2011).
Moore, R. H. et al. Biofuel blending reduces particle emissions from aircraft engines at cruise conditions. Nature 543, 411–415 (2017).
Caiazzo, F., Agarwal, A., Speth, R. L. & Barrett, S. R. H. Impact of biofuels on contrail warming. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 114013 (2017).
Brewer, G. D. Hydrogen Aircraft Technology (CRC Press, 1990).
Withers, M. R. et al. Economic and environmental assessment of liquified natural gas as a supplemental aircraft fuel. Prog. Aerosp. Sci. 66, 17–36 (2014).
Drela, M. Power balance in aerodynamic flows. AIAA J. 47, 1761–1771 (2009).
Hall, D. K. et al. Boundary layer ingestion propulsion benefit for transport aircraft. J. Propul. Power 33, 1118–1129 (2017).
Datta, A. Commercial Intra-City On-Demand Electric-VTOL Status of Technology (University Maryland, College Park, 2018).
Lee, J. J., Lukachko, S. P., Waitz, I. A. & Schäfer, A. Historical and future trends in aircraft performance, cost, and emissions. Annu. Rev. Ener. Environ. 26, 167–200 (2001).
Hepperle, M. Electric Flight Potential and Limitations (DLR Electronic Library, German Aerospace Centre, Cologne, 2012); https://elib.dlr.de/78726/
Gnadt, A. R. Technical and Environmental Assessment of All-Electric 180-Passenger Commercial Aircraft. SM thesis, Massachusetts Inst. Technol. (2018).
Hornung, M., Isikveren, A. T., Cole, M. & Sizmann, A. Ce-Liner—case study for emobility in air transportation. In 13th AIAA Aviation Technology, Integration, and Operations Conference (AIAA, 2013); https://doi.org/10.2514/6.2013-4302
Delhaye, J. L. & Rostek, P. Electrical Technologies for the Aviation of the Future (Europe-Japan Symposium, Tokyo, 2015).
Panasonic Lithium Ion NCR18650B (Panasonic, Newark, 2012).
Muenzel, V. et al. A comparative testing study of commercial 18650-format lithium-ion battery cells. J. Electrochem. Soc. 162, A1592–A1600 (2015).
Dever, T. P. et al. Assessment of Technologies for Noncryogenic Hybrid Electric Propulsion (NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, 2015).
Airbus E-FAN, The New Way to Fly (Airbus, Munich, 2015).
Bradley, M. K. & Droney, C. K. Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research: Phase I Final Report NASA/CR-2011-216847 (Boeing Research & Technology, Huntington Beach, 2011).
Bradley, M. K. & Droney, C. K. Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research Phase II: N + 4 Advanced Concept Development NASA/CR-2012-217556 (Boeing Research & Technology, Huntington Beach, 2012).
Koh, H. & Magee, C. L. A functional approach for studying technological progress: extension to energy technology. Technol. Forecast. Soc. 75, 735–758 (2008).
Crabtree, G., Kócs, E. & Trahey, L. The energy-storage frontier: lithium-ion batteries and beyond. MRS Bull. 40, 1067–1076 (2015).
Sinsay, J. D. et al. Air Vehicle Design and Technology Considerations for an Electric VTOL Metro-regional Public Transportation System (12th AIAA Aviation Technology, Integration, and Operations Conference, 2012); https://doi.org/10.2514/6.2012-5404.
Unger, N. et al. Attribution of climate forcing to economic sectors. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 3382–3387 (2010).
Kim, H. C. et al. Cradle-to-gate emissions from a commercial electric vehicle Li-ion battery: a comparative analysis. Environ. Sci. Technol. 50, 7715–7722 (2016).
Chediak, M. The Latest Bull Case for Electric Cars: the Cheapest Batteries Ever (Bloomberg, 2017); https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-12-05/latest-bull-case-for-electric-cars-the-cheapest-batteries-ever.
Energy Information Administration United States Electricity Profile 2015. Table 1 (EIA, 2017); https://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/unitedstates/.
Dray, L. M. AIM2015 Documentation (Air Transportation Systems Laboratory, UCL, 2018); http://www.atslab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/AIM-2015-Documentation-v9-30082018.pdf.
Sabre Market Intelligence Schedule and Passenger Database (Sabre, 2017); https://www.sabreairlinesolutions.com/home/software_solutions/product/market_competitive_intelligence/.
Dray, L. M., Schäfer, A. W. & Al Zayat, K. The global potential for CO2 emissions reduction from jet engine passenger aircraft Transp. Res. Rec. 1-12, 18-04002 (2018).
Reynolds, T. G. et al. Modelling environmental and economic impacts of aviation: introducing the aviation integrated modelling project. In Proc. 7th AIAA/ATIO Conf. (AIAA, 2007); https://doi.org/10.2514/6.2007-7751.
Eurocontrol Experimental Centre Aircraft Noise and Performance (ANP) Database v2.1 (EEC, 2016); http://www.aircraftnoisemodel.org.
Synodinos, P. A., Self, R. H., Flindell, I. H. & Torija, A. J. Estimating variation in community noise due to variation in aircraft operations. In Proc. 10th Eur. Congress Exposition Noise Control Eng. (European Acoustics Association, 2015).
Synodinos, P. A., Self, R. H. & Torija, A. J. A new method for estimating community noise changes due to aircraft technology variations. In Proc. 23rd Int. Congress Sound Vibration (International Institute of Acoustics and Vibration, 2016).
Synodinos, P. A., Self, R. H. & Torija, A. J. A framework for predicting noise-power-distance curves for novel aircraft designs. J. Aircraft 55, 781–791 (2018).
Synodinos, P. A., Self, R. H. & Torija, A. J. Noise assessment of aircraft with distributed electric propulsion using a new noise estimation framework. In Proc. 24th Int. Congress Sound Vibration (International Institute of Acoustics and Vibration, 2017).
Liu, C. X., Teng, J. & Ihiabe, D. Method to explore the design space of a turbo-electric distributed propulsion system. J. Aerospace Eng. 29, 04016027 (2016).
Synodinos, P. A. A New Framework For Estimating The Noise Impact Of Novel Aircraft. PhD thesis, Univ. Southampton (2017).
Huff, D. L., Henderson, B. S. & Envia, E. A First Look at Electric Motor Noise for Future Propulsion Systems. Oral/visual presentation GRC-E-DAA-TN31506 (NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, 2016).
Torija, A. J., Self, R. H. & Flindell, I. H. A model for the rapid assessment of the impact of aviation noise near airports. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 141, 981–995 (2017).
Ager-Wick Ellingsen, L., Singh, B. & Hammer Strømman, A. The size and range effect: lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of electric vehicles. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 1–8 (2016).
FlightGlobal Ascend Fleets (FlightGlobal, 2017); https://www.flightglobal.com/products/.
Howell, D., Cunningham, B., Duong, T. & Faguy, P. Overview of the DOE VTO Advanced Battery R&D Program (US Department of Energy, Vehicle Technologies Office, Washington DC, 2016).
Fancher, D. Defining Technologies for the next Millennium (GE Aircraft Engines, Evendale, 1999).
Hoelzen, J. et al. Conceptual design of operation strategies for hybrid electric aircraft. Energies 11, 217 (2018).
Schiferl, R., Flory, A., Livoti, W. C. & Umans, S. D. High-temperature superconducting synchronous motors: economic issues for industrial applications. IEEE T. Ind. Appl. 44, 1376–1384 (2008).
Haran, K. S. et al. High power density superconducting rotating machines—development status and technology roadmap. Supercond. Sci. Tech. 30, 123002 (2017).
Aircraft Commerce Maintenance and Engineering (Aircraft Commerce, 2017); http://www.aircraft-commerce.com/default.asp.
US Bureau of Transportation Statistics Air Carrier Financial: Schedule P-5.2 (2017); https://www.transtats.bts.gov/DL_SelectFields.asp.
Piano-X (Lissys, 2010); http://www.lissys.demon.co.uk/PianoX.html.
Schäfer, A. W., Heywood, J. B., Jacoby, H. D. & Waitz, I. A. Transportation in a Climate-Constrained World (MIT Press, 2009).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Schäfer, A.W., Barrett, S.R.H., Doyme, K. et al. Technological, economic and environmental prospects of all-electric aircraft. Nat Energy 4, 160–166 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-018-0294-x
This article is cited by
The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment (2023)
Biomass Conversion and Biorefinery (2023)
Nature Communications (2022)
Nature Climate Change (2022)