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Electrification in Aerospace: The Benefits Changing the Future of Flight

Electrification in Aerospace: The Benefits Changing the Future of Flight

An image of a large aircraft taking off at sunset

The aerospace industry has recently witnessed a profound shift towards electrification. Electrification is replacing technologies or processes that use fossil fuels with electrically powered equivalents, improving energy demand and reducing emissions' environmental impact. Many industries have prioritized sustainability efforts within the last decade, with electrification becoming one of the most critical strategies in pursuing lower CO2 emissions.

Outside of sustainability efforts, electrification in aerospace offers greater benefits than helping the industry attain levels set forth by the Net Zero Emissions initiative by 2050. Electrification offers more fuel-efficient, cost-effective, and quieter aircraft. Furthermore, the growing use of electric aircraft could increase usage in regional airports. In the U.S., only 0.6% of all airports serve over 70% of all travelers. Experts believe that electrification efforts could see this number increase.

As the world intensifies its focus on sustainability, electrification will be the main force, challenging traditional norms and paving the way for innovation in flight technology.

The Transition from Jet Fuel to Electric Power

At the heart of aerospace electrification efforts is the development of electric propulsion systems. Conventional propulsion systems, such as jet engines or gas turbines, spray compressed air with fuel and use electric sparks to ignite the mixture. The explosive result creates the thrust necessary to propel an aircraft forward. A lot of fuel is necessary to combat weight and environmental factors resulting in a large amount of CO2 emissions—and that’s without taking contingency fuel into the equation. With the rising number of travelers per year, air travel emissions, should no electrification efforts be taken, will increase from 2%-3% to 10% or upwards of 24%.  

Unlike conventional jet engines, electric aircraft or hybrid systems utilize batteries or fuel cells to power electric motors. Electric systems may use energy collected via solar arrays or a nuclear reactor to generate thrust, thereby erasing the limitations of storing propellants, or gallons of fuel, aboard. Instead of creating fire like a conventional engine, the collected energy is converted to ionized inert gas fuels to accelerate the ions out of the thruster.  

This method is most commonly seen in spacecraft electric propulsion, where massive thrust is necessary to propel equipment into space. Electric propulsion, first demonstrated in the 1960s, has been used in spacecraft for decades. Only recently has electric power been catching up to the aircraft industry.  

Most companies still utilize fossil fuels, but now over 215 types of electric-powered aircraft are being developed worldwide. Industry observers state we are on the precipice of a market shift, with electric airplanes becoming more commonplace before the end of the next decade.  

Most electrical propulsion development occurs within Europe and North America, the typical centers for aerospace technology design. Only 17% of known developments are happening elsewhere. One of the key players in developing hybrid-electric propulsion systems is RTX, which tested a 1-megawatt electric motor to be combined with a thermal engine to increase fuel efficiency by 30%.

RTX is also experimenting with replacing fossil fuels with liquid hydrogen as water is the main byproduct for these types of emissions. Another method utilizes hydrogen fuel cells, which leverage a catalyst to separate hydrogen molecules to create a flow of electricity. Both systems vastly eliminate the problematic emissions seen in conventional propulsion systems.

General Electric has also focused on increasing efficiency in hybrid-electric propulsion systems like RTX. Meanwhile, surprise contender, Rolls-Royce, is working on improving heat dissipation to ensure longevity for air taxis and electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles. Smaller startups, such as Joby Aviation LLC, Archer Aviation Inc., and Ampaire, have been exploring different aspects of electric flight, from vehicle cabin thermal management to lightweight battery packs.  

Several key players in the aerospace sector are leading the charge towards electrification. Companies like Airbus, Boeing, and other startups are investing in research and development to bring electric aircraft to the market. From small commuter planes to larger commercial jets and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), electric propulsion systems are being integrated into various aircraft types, each promising unique advantages in their respective niches.

Four Advantages Driving Electrification Efforts

The greater the benefits, the more influential the drive to adopt becomes. This is especially true in a massive industry like aerospace, where the standards to go to market are strict and expensive. It can be difficult to push an industry that must meet stringent requirements to embrace a large-scale change like electrification.  

That said, the benefits of adopting electrification in aerospace will affect everyone, from aircraft manufacturers to travelers.  

  1. Environmental Impact: The most compelling reason for electrification is its potential to reduce carbon emissions significantly. Most electric aircraft produce zero direct emissions during flight, drastically reducing pollutants contributing to climate change. While hybrid-electric propulsion systems are not entirely free from contaminants, RTX has shown its hybrid system can reduce emissions by upwards of 30%. That is a big step in achieving the Net Zero Emissions initiative by 2050.
  1. Operational Efficiency: It’s no surprise that electric propulsion systems are inherently more efficient than traditional engines. According to research, electrification can improve operational efficiency from airline maintenance to airport use. Likewise, fewer moving parts with reduced fuel consumption can decrease maintenance requirements while increasing longevity.  
  1. Noise Reduction: Noise pollution contributes to adverse health impacts on humans and animals, from hearing loss to higher blood pressure. Electric motors are much quieter than conventional combustion motors, reducing noise pollution by 60%. This gives travelers a more pleasant flight experience and is especially beneficial for urban air mobility solutions and airports in densely populated areas.  
  1. Flexibility and Innovation: Electrification will unveil new opportunities for solutions in aerospace. For example, developments in electric propulsion have illuminated previously unknown or overlooked possibilities for aircraft design and operational capabilities. Specifically, electric propulsion systems enable VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing), which are crucial for urban air mobility projects and short-distance travel solutions.

Challenges Hampering Adoption

The electrification of aerospace has promising potential; however, remaining roadblocks have made the larger push to adopt more sustainable technology difficult. For the industry to embrace electrification at a higher rate, remaining challenges must be sufficiently addressed or eliminated.

  • Battery Technology: Current battery technology limits electric aircraft's range and payload capacity. Battery pack failure could result in the loss of propulsive power or increased risk of fire or explosion. Advances in battery energy density and safety are critical to scaling electric flight for larger commercial applications. Similarly, operating costs for batteries in electric aircraft compared to conventional aircraft are more expensive, deterring others from switching.
  • Infrastructure: A problem that impacts all electrification efforts from automotive markets to smart cities is electric infrastructure. Current infrastructure cannot support a future filled with electric aircraft; it must be upgraded. A robust infrastructure plan, including charging stations and grid capacity upgrades, is essential for widespread adoption.
  • Regulatory Hurdles: Regulations and certifications may not support the integration of electric aircraft, meaning that regulatory bodies will need to develop new standards to ensure uniformity for personnel and traveler safety. However, this can take years to create, cost millions, and require studies to develop a baseline to which all-electric aircraft can conform.

The Future of Electrification in Aerospace

The future of electrification in aerospace looks promising, albeit with significant hurdles to clear. Continued investment in research and development, coupled with collaboration to overcome lingering challenges, will be vital in accelerating the adoption of electric aircraft. As technology advances and public awareness of environmental issues grows, the demand for cleaner, quieter, and more efficient air travel options will continue to drive innovation in the aerospace sector.

Sourceability's experts can help you obtain the components your company needs to begin building new electric propulsion systems and other sustainable aerospace systems. Certified with AS6081, aerospace industry buyers can rest assured knowing they are obtaining authentic parts from our franchised, authorized, and qualified third-party suppliers. Our commitment to sustainability ensures that your company can meet your needs without sacrificing quality.  

Contact our global team of experts today to begin sourcing the stock you need to support your electrification endeavors.  

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