If you have to fly sustainably, then you might as well do it with class.
This seems to be the apt strategy for a company currently prepping its all-electric nine-seat luxury plane for flights, which can fly 440 nautical miles (506 miles, 814 km) on one, singular charge of its colossal 820 kWh battery pack, after crucial flight test hardware was successfully delivered, according to a recent press release.
And, while the all-electric drive system will see such luxury airplanes priced out of most people's budget, new, cheaper means of sourcing lithium from ordinary seawater hint at a more fiscally feasible future.
An all-electric airplane made of lightweight material, with an impressive 500-mile range
The company, called Eviation, also said it's received the first of three electric motors, called the Magnix Electric Propulsion Units, which will power three adjustable pitch pusher props, with one per pod at each wing's tip, and a third one hoisted on the tail. That one will accelerate rapidly moving air around the fuselage, converting the entire body into an extra wing surface, providing more lift. The prototype's design aims squarely at space-age, with a giant v-tail, in addition to a flat-like, lift-generating fuselage. The prototype can also ferry passengers and crew at a cruise speed of roughly 253 mph (407 km/h).
And, notably, the Alice plane maintains low noise levels, adding appeal with comfort via its electric powertrain. A range of 506 miles is impressive for any all-electric aircraft, but for Alice, this means a colossal 8,200-lb (3,720-kg) lithium-ion battery, which is more than half of the maximum takeoff weight of the airplane, at 14,700 lbs (6,668 kg). The luxury vehicle was designed with ultra-lightweight composite material, to optimize this situation.
Eviation isn't wrong to say its all-electric luxury plane and others like it represent the first wave of a price-hike in the aviation industry. Just like all-electric luxury vehicles, prices will likely start high at the beginning, since lithium batteries are more complicated to manufacture than conventional fossil-fuel ones. But lithium batteries are far less maintenance-intensive and cheaper to run. And, there's a chance lithium-ion batteries might get a lot cheaper in the near future.
Recently, a team of researchers developed a novel filtration system that extracts lithium from raw seawater, which could fundamentally transform the all-electric landscape, not just on roads, but also for airplanes. This is significant because industry experts expect EVs to exhaust lithium reserves on land by the year 2080, putting ostensibly sustainable efforts to update the auto industry for the 21st century on a potentially dead-end road. The world's oceans contain roughly 5,000 times more lithium than land, and, although they exist at tiny concentrations of only 0.2 parts per million, the KAUST-based research team found a way to make it work.
Seawater-sourced lithium might serve to relax all-electric airplane costs
Engineering an electrochemical cell, the research team included a ceramic membrane on the inside, made of lithium lanthanum titanium oxide (LLTO), with a crystal structure riddled with holes big enough to let lithium ions pass through without letting bigger metal ions slip through. "LLTO membranes have never been used to extract and concentrate lithium ions before," said Zhen Li, one of the cell's developers and a postdoc researcher. The cell is a complicated piece of machinery, and could substantially extend the operational life of an all-electric transportation industry on land and in the air.
While there are potential ethical concerns for sea-based creatures who rely on constant lithium levels to survive, the ability to extract one kilogram with only five dollars of electricity (via the KAUST cell) could signal one way for lithium-ion batteries to drop in price, which would, in turn, make luxury airplanes with electric drive systems more feasible at a lower price. This is still years or perhaps decades away, but the possibilities are nothing to ignore as the major industries of the world adapt to the reality of climate change.