NASA Funds To Develop Fully Electric Aircraft

  • NASA will fund $6 million over the course of 3 years to support the University Leadership Initiative project.
  • The project aims to develop a fully electric aircraft that would release zero carbon dioxide and no other harmful emissions.

In order to reduce climate change in this century, it important to electrify everything, including air travel. We are going to need electric aircraft. Although the idea might sound far-fetched, many research centers and private organization are working to make electric flights by 2030.

Electric airplane designed so far have used electric motors to drive thrust-generating propellers. They have much lower cost of electrical energy than aviation fuel. Exhaust emission and noise are also low compared to combustion engines.

In the recent decade, NASA has also stepped into this technology. This month (May 2019), NASA has announced they will fund $6 million over the course of 3 years to support the University Leadership Initiative project.

The project —  named the Center for Cryogenic High-Efficiency Electrical Technologies for Aircraft (or CHEETA) — aims to develop a fully electric aircraft that stores energy in the form of cryogenic liquid hydrogen. The propulsion system of the aircraft would release zero carbon dioxide and no other harmful emissions.

Using a stack of fuel cells, the hydrogen energy is transformed into electrical energy, which drives the lift-generating rotors. Since this hydrogen system requires low temperatures, it offers opportunities to utilize lossless or superconducting energy transmission and high-power motor systems.

Souce: NASA

Recent advances in non-cryogenic equipment have brought this dream one step closer to reality. However, building feasible cryogenic systems for big airplanes remain a challenging task. The project will address all technical challenges over the next few years.

There are a total of 3 teams and each is assigned with different research topics.

University of Wisconsin

Although companies are trying to automate every aspect of manufacturing process, some steps cannot be effectively handled by robots alone due to the large variability in those steps. These processes require a careful touch of humans and instant actions as per varying conditions.

Fully Electric Aircraft funded by NASAArtisitics concept of CHEETA | Credit: University of Illinois

Researchers from this university will try to figure out how robotics can be used to enhance the flexibility and efficiency of airplane manufacturing processes, while improving the workers’ safety.

Carnegie Mellon University 

They will be working on new technique to use additive manufacturing, such as 3D printing, to increase the speed of mass-production and reduce costs without compromising safety, quality and reliability.

Read: A Radically New Type Of Airplane Wing That Changes Shape While Flying

University of Illinois

They will explore the efficient ways of using liquid hydrogen in fuel cells to produce electricity. Also, they will investigate how this liquid hydrogen can be utilized to enable novel superconducting electrical systems.

They are working on a concept that integrates superconducting equipment into a modern twin-engine, single aisle airplane.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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