Heavy jet liners need vast amounts of fuel to take off and maintain flight, making them by far the least sustainable form of travel. A new Swedish startup believes that a future of completely electric flight could be on the horizon.
Although travelling by air was once available to only the rich and famous, civilian aviation has risen sharply in recent decades, especially thanks to short haul budget airlines. As such, the impact of this growth, and of aircraft on the environment in general, has come under increased scrutiny. In some places, especially Scandanavia, this was resulted in the no-fly movement and the social phenomenon of flygskam or ‘flight shaming’, which describes the sense of shame you feel about flying when cleaner - but often less convenient - alternative methods of travel are available.
Swedish startup Heart Aerospace is looking to clean up aviation’s reputation and turn it into an environmentally-sustainable means of travel for shorter, regional distances. To achieve this, they have been developing prototype aircraft which could, they claim, have zero operational emissions.
The technology behind their aircraft is not so fundamentally different from that of both traditional aircraft and electric vehicles. Simply put, to create and maintain lift beneath its wings, aircraft require large amounts of thrust. Most commonly, this is achieved through the use of specially developed aviation fuel which consists of a complex blend of hydrocarbons designed to deliver high performance output. This is especially important with larger aircraft which are generally much heavier and therefore require more thrust for flight.
Heart Aerospace intends to replace the fuel component of aircraft with large electric batteries not unlike those used in electric road vehicles. Until recently, such batteries were deemed too heavy to be used in flight, as the power they generated was insufficient for achieving lift. However, the explosion of the e-vehicle market has resulted in rapid advances in technology that could make electric airliners possible.
To this end, Heart Aerospace has produced the ES-19, a fully electric 19-seat turbo-prop airliner which appears on the surface to be very similar to a traditional aircraft when it comes to its specifications. However, the electric nature of the ES-19 not only allows it to produce zero carbon emissions while in flight, but according to Heart Aerospace, would also lead to less sound pollution and a smoother flight.
Currently, the ES-19 is expected to have a range of around 400 kilometres which means it will be unsuitable for long and short haul international flights. Instead, the ES-19 is looking to replace private commercial jets which operate on a regional level.
A sustainable option for short haul trips?
According to aviation industry figures, commercial aircraft only account for 1.5 to 2 percent of global carbon emissions, but this figure is relatively misleading. Much of the developing world still does not utilise civilian aviation to a high degree, meaning this 2 percent of global carbon emissions are really being produced by a smaller population of mostly Western, high-income nations. For example, the US is responsible for around 24 percent of all aviation emissions, with most of this figure coming from shorter domestic flights. In the UK, flight is more likely to account for around 13 to 15 percent of total carbon emissions.
Although regional flights under 700 kilometres make up only a small fraction of these overall global emissions, they are, per capita, more polluting than long haul flights. On average, shorter regional flights produce around 251 grams per kilometre of carbon, compared to 195 grams per kilometre for long haul flights. This difference is due to the fact most fuel is used on take off and landing and less during high altitude level flight. The fact some private jet liners are used only by exclusive groups of people, and are often not fully occupied when in flight, compounds this issue further.
Heart Aerospace hopes the environmental credentials of the ES-19 will see it introduced as a method of speedy, and sustainable, regional travel. The ES-19 will also be able to land on shorter runways, allowing it to open up more smaller regional airfields that are often missed by major carriers. This, combined with its quieter engines, means it can land closer to cities and urban areas, therefore also reducing emissions produced by other vehicles serving major airports.
Furthermore, as battery technology and efficiency improves, Heart Aerospace hopes to one day target 'narrow body' short haul flights of around 2,000 kilometres. This sector accounts for a much larger portion of aviation pollution, resulting in around 43 percent of carbon emissions.
Currently, the ES-19 is expected to be certified for flight in 2026, where it will primarily serve Scandanavian cities. Both Norway and Sweden have committed themselves to fully electric domestic flights by 2030 and 2040 respectively. However, it is currently working through broader flight certification and is attracting airlines in other markets, such as North America, Asia and Europe.