Electric cars have become common, but building a commercial electric plane is a different story. Just ask Mohamed Ali, vice president for engineering at GE Aerospace. “Electric motors behave very differently at altitudes above 10,000 feet,” he says. “They are susceptible to plasma arcing, for example, and much more difficult to manage.”
But Ali has some good news for the industry. Speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow this week, Ali, together with NASA, announced they have become the first to successfully test high-power, high-voltage hybrid electric aircraft engine components at high-altitude conditions. The technology GE is advancing “will help make hybrid electric flight a reality for everyday commercial air travel, and it should have a real and necessary impact on the carbon emissions associated with flying,” Ali says.
Specifically, GE and NASA ran a megawatt-class, multi-kilovolt hybrid electric system in conditions simulating altitudes up to 45,000 feet. One megawatt could supply the equivalent of more than 600 U.S. houses. “This proves that we are altitude ready, “ Ali says. “Next is to prove that we are flight ready.”
The test took place at NEAT — NASA’s Electric Aircraft Testbed facility — the only facility currently capable of simulating high-electric and high-altitude conditions that’s also large enough to fit an electric powertrain. “NEAT is the only testing location capable of simultaneously providing both high electric power and high-altitude conditions in an area large enough to fit an entire electric powertrain — it’s truly one of a kind in the world,” says NASA’s Tim McCartney, director of aeronautics at the Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland.
GE has spent years developing the power system, building on its expertise in electric motors and generators, power converters, power transmissions and power control systems.
Testing of GE’s hybrid electric propulsion system will continue as part of NASA’s Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) project.
Next, GE will partner with Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences to test the system in the air on a Saab 340B plane using GE’s CT7 engines. Bryan Yutko, vice president and chief engineer for sustainability and future mobility at Boeing, called the completed test “an important, foundational achievement."
Single-aisle planes could make up 70% of the world’s rapidly growing commercial aviation fleet in the near future. With aviation accounting for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, hybrid electric propulsion technologies could help bring the number down.
Image credit: GE Aviation