Electric cars are fast becoming a more common sight on the UK’s roads. Tesla’s success at producing desirable and competent EVs in the luxury car segment and an ever increasing number of supercar manufacturers are utilising the instantaneous colossal torque of electric motors in the pursuit of environmentally-sound speed. But there is another area where electrification is becoming the aim of engineers – aerospace. The UK may be the perfect testing environment for these experimental new planes.
Whilst there are a magnitude more road-going vehicles than there are planes, the level of pollution that a single 747 emits with its huge turbojet engines needed to cruise at 30,000ft and at a speed of 500 knots, is truly monumental when compared to the emissions of a single Nissan Micra for example (even if you drove flat out from Edinburgh to London). Interestingly enough, the way in which jets pollute the atmosphere is more complex compared to cars mainly due to the factors of the intense heat produced by jet engines and the chemical makeup of aviation fuel itself, meaning that aviation as an industry and form of public transport – including the traditional CO2 pollution caused by ground support vehicles etc. – is one that is highly damaging to the environment. In fact, it has been reported that aviation is responsible for 12% of pollution caused by transportation despite being relatively small in scale.
The teething problems with electric vehicles, however, has always been limited range and vastly increased weight – battery efficiency has improved exponential and will hopefully continue to do so, but for passenger planes, the demands of range and weight are far more critical than road-going vehicles. If an electric car that runs out of juice, you may end up causing a traffic jam as you have to push it to the kerbside. In an electric plane, you fall out of the sky. This problem of range is why the UK has been chosen by developers of these new planes, notably Airbus and Rolls Royce. The compact size of the British Isles compared to much of continental Europe (it’s doubtful that manufacturers even bothered considering the colossal North American states), coupled with the fact that the country is littered with predominantly disused airstrips makes it an ideal place for the first short-haul test flights. Although the prospect that, one day, even an airport like Heathrow might be completely silent is a slightly eerie one.