Today, electric cars account for less than 1% of vehicles on the road—only 5 million of the estimated 1 billion vehicles in operation, worldwide. Even so, electric cars are not nearly as rare as they once were, and purchasing one requires little more than walking into an appropriate dealership. Just taking a flight on an electric plane would be far harder to accomplish, as no commercial airline currently utilizes them. Purchasing a private model would run you in the millions. But they certainly do exist, and their history stretches back further than most of us probably realize.
The La France Electric Dirigible
In 1884, Charles Renard and Arthur Constantin Krebs performed an astonishing aeronautical feat when they launched the La France, a 170-foot, battery-powered airship designed for the French Army. The dirigible’s maiden voyage set records as being both the first fully controlled free-flight undertaken in an airship and the first round-trip flight in which an airship landed on its starting point. Krebs piloted the dirigible through that 5-mile, record-setting flight in just 23 minutes.
To power the La France, Renard and Krebs harnessed a unique zinc-chlorine flow battery, which weighed almost 1,000 lbs. That battery-powered the La France through six more flights between 1884 and 1885 and won Renard and Krebs the 1886 PONTI Prize. The pair were so far ahead of their own time. In fact, the next successful manned, electric flight would not be completed for nearly another hundred years. On October 21, 1973, Heino Brditschka would take to the air in a modified HB-3 power glider.
The MB-E1 (Militky-Brditschka-Electro-1)
Brditschka’s 1973 flight drew significant attention from the public, occurring, as it did, just two days after the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) declared an oil embargo that launched the world into its first oil crisis. Overnight, the price of gasoline soared. Car owners faced long line-ups at the pump to pay inflated prices for a tank of gas, and gas shortages meant stations not even have a supply to sell to consumers.
Following the oil crisis, car manufacturers began to seriously explore electric energy as a cheaper and more reliable alternative to fossil fuels. But Brditschka, along with his school friend, Fred Militky, had begun work on the MB-E1 electric plane years before the embargo even occurred. By 1969, they’d built a working prototype by modifying an HB-3 power glider to run on an electric drive they’d engineered themselves.
The MB-E1’s electric drive consisted of four 24-hour charged nickel-cadmium Varta brand batteries, which together generated 100 volts and allowed for eight minutes of continuous operation. The plane’s engine was actually a Bosch DC motor that originally powered a forklift. Militky and Brditschka modified it to perform at triple capacity and transmit power from the plane’s battery system to its propeller.
The new energy storage system added 132 lbs to the plane. And while that meant the MB-E1’s battery weighed 800 lbs less than its predecessor, the La France’s, it still accounted for nearly 14% of the plane’s total weight. This illustrates a problem that still plagues electric airplane manufacturers today: producing enough electric power for flight without overweighting a plane with batteries.
Today’s jet fuels contain 14 times more energy than even our most advanced lithium-ion batteries. To overcome that energy deficit, manufacturers must add more batteries to a plane. This increases its weight and decreases both its efficiency and its passenger-and-cargo capacity. As such, battery power remains an impractical source of energy for commercial airlines.
However, recent studies have raised alarming red flags about airlines’ contributions to global warming. And the more we learn about air travel’s carbon footprint, the more intense the push for green alternatives becomes. Both government bodies and major airlines have already made ambitious pledges to that cause.
One major British airline is already working to develop a fleet of electric planes capable of covering short-haul routes by 2030. In 2018, Norway’s government pledged to have all flights running on electric power by 2040.
We’ve come a long way from La France’s 1000-pound battery. However, achieving such a bright, electric-powered future for flight and making our reliance on jet fuel a thing of the past still hinges on developing better, lighter, and more efficient batteries.