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.