The engineering giants want to develop a hybrid electric commercial plane ready for a test flight in 2020
The race to get the first commercial low emission planes in the skies intensified this week after engineering giants Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Siemens launched a new partnership to develop a hybrid electric plane.
The three firms are developing a prototype hybrid electric plane, where at least one of the aircraft's four gas turbine engines is replaced with a two megawatt electric motor. The trio aim to have a demonstration model up and running by 2020.
It follows news from low-cost airline EasyJet, which earlier this year announced ambitions to fly electric passenger planes on short haul routes within the next 10 years under a partnership with US electric jet pioneers Wright Electric.
Meanwhile in October Airbus rival Boeing bought Virginia-based aviation research firm Aurora Flight Sciences for an undisclosed sum, in a move that prompted widespread speculation over the company's electric aviation ambitions.
The Airbus, Siemens and Rolls-Royce tie-up already looks to be one of the most advanced electric flight programmes in the industry. "The E-Fan X is an important next step in our goal of making electric flight a reality in the foreseeable future," said Paul Eremenko, Airbus' chief technology officer, who added that the firms' combined expertise in the field will pave the way for a hybrid single-aisle commercial aircraft that is "safe, efficient and cost-effective".
"We see hybrid-electric propulsion as a compelling technology for the future of aviation," he added.
The race for low carbon aviation becomes all the more pressing for the sector after 2020, when an industry-wide carbon offsetting deal starts to take effect that will require airlines to offset any emissions growth above 2020 levels.
More efficient engines, lighter planes and biofuels are all seen as part of the carbon-cutting mix, but few technologies promise zero-emission flight more readily than electric planes - provided batteries or fuel cells can become much lighter, cheaper, and more powerful.
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