Pratt & Whitney exec: Electric aircraft would require technological miracles

A Pratt & Whitney executive has explained something that even the most fanatical e-vangelist can see: full-size commercial airliners are not likely to become EVs any time soon.

In a question-and-answer session with reporters this week, Alan Epstein, P&W’s VP of Technology and Environment, said that the company has investigated electric aircraft and determined that three technological “miracles” must occur before electric flight is viable.

First, battery technology would need to improve by 50 to 100 times, said Epstein, noting that a Boeing 737 uses about 10 MW of energy at cruising speeds. Current battery technology would suffice only “if you want to fly one-hundredth of the distance in the same size airplane,” he said.

P&W has spoken with engineers at MIT about developing an electric engine capable of powering large aircraft, and determined that it’s theoretically possible, but would require new superconductivity technology. Also, engineers would need to remove the engine’s magnetic shielding to reduce its weight, which could be a problem, Epstein says, because without magnetic shielding the engine would “kill the people sitting next to the motors.”

Saying that “three miracles are about two-and-a-half too many,” Epstein says he doesn’t envision commercial electric aircraft without innovations that have yet to be invented. However, he predicts that P&W’s parent company United Technologies will be at the forefront of electric-aircraft design if and when the technology becomes viable, noting that United Technologies’ Aerospace Systems division makes the electrical equipment in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.



  • Benjamin Nead

    This sounds logical. What is needed for commercial jets is a non-petroleum substitute for current day avgas . . . perhaps some sort of algae-based biofuel that can be produced at scale.

    Meanwhile, electricity seems to work well for motors at speeds where ICE engines are spinning propellers. Private aviation could see a boost in popularity with the adoption of small electric prop aircraft that are quieter, have lower maintenance costs and no tailpipe pollution. Planes like Solar Impulse show the potential of what PV panels can do for electric prop planes.

    Also . . . time for the US to catch up with the rest of the world and develop high speed electric rail for medium haul work. This could take a lot of smaller jets out of the air that are currently making 300 and 400 mile hops and lots of gas burning cars off the interstates that are traversing similar distances.

  • Dumitru Bojiuc

    For any size of EV Airplane (EVA), the wonder engine that will justify both the economics and technical efficiency is the electrokinetic engine (EKE). And the answer for the energy needed to propel/move such a giant is not the battery’s capacity but the companion range extenders, those backup babies that recaptures the needed juice from “its own dynamic enemies” trying to slow down the EVA during its cruising time, plus some other technological “miracles” unleashed from the financially limited “open minds”. Is P&W ready to assist?

  • ed monfort

    What happened to the Tesla coil transfer Nikola Tesla developed? Motors are being developed now that are going to be 4 times more efficient. Energy density is increasing every year in batteries. Carbon fiber materials are here and nano is on the horizon. You will see small electric passenger planes within 10 years.