Air travel accounts for nearly 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions and is considered one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas pollution. Therefore, the scientific community has long felt that the electrification of air travel could provide wide-reaching benefits for the global environment. Powering an aircraft, however, requires batteries that are able to discharge rapidly, at a high intensity for liftoff, and provide power for an extended time period—a feat that has eluded scientists until now.
The race to develop aircraft powered by electrons has inspired extensive research in the field of energy storage, specifically in the areas of discharge capacity, power density, and duration. The power requirement for an aircraft varies greatly during the course of a flight, with a tremendous amount of energy needed at takeoff, and less required as the plane reaches cruising altitude. Standard batteries are challenged to deliver an energy burst powerful enough to achieve liftoff, much less provide energy for the duration of a long-distance flight.
However, a 2016 discovery by researchers at MIT that allows electrons to flow faster through batteries may lead to a solution as the methodology is further developed.
In a paper published in Nature Energy, Yet-Ming Chiang, Johnathan Sander, and colleagues demonstrated that mixing magnetic nanoparticles with electrode materials and applying a magnetic field helped create aligned pathways through the electrodes. This effectively increased the rate that electrons could travel out of the battery. In fact, the researchers found that magnetic fields actually doubled the discharge capacity of a standard lithium-ion battery—a significant advancement for energy storage technologies.
“It’s opening up a whole new direction in what we can get out of batteries for electric aviation,” Chiang told the MIT Tech Review. While researchers acknowledge that a number of battery advancements will be needed to fully electrify aircraft, they are currently working to develop and test prototypes.
These advancements have the potential to transform the transportation industry. According to the US Bureau of Transportation, regional air travel only accounts for less than 1% of trips. Short commuter flights are not cost-effective for airlines, largely due to the amount of fuel consumed during takeoff. However, transportation experts believe that, once electrified, regional flights could revolutionize travel and make commuting by air a reality.
What are your impressions? What sort of impact do you think the electrification of air travel may have on the transportation industry? What other uses of rapid-discharge batteries do you foresee?