Moving billions of people around the world every year calls for billions of gallons of fuel (17.3 billion gallons in 2017 alone). In fact, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) projects this year's global airline industry fuel bill to be $206 billion, accounting for a full 25 percent of operating costs. It's estimated that the aviation industry contributes 2-3 percent of the world's human-generated carbon dioxide emissions and 12 percent of CO2 emissions from all transportation sources. And aircraft noise is a growing issue with communities around the world.
At Collins, we view these cost and environmental impact challenges as critical to both our industry and our world, and we're putting our 70+ years of expertise and power management and electrical architecture to work – along with significant investments – to tackle it.
An electric pedigree
At Collins Aerospace, we've been working to harness the power of power for generations, and today we are the leading provider of electric power systems in the aviation industry. We provide the world's largest flying micro grid: the 1.5 megawatt Boeing 787 power management and distribution system. We also supply key systems for the F-35, the most technologically advanced fighter in the world and the most electric plane flying. This work has allowed Collins to develop electric systems knowledge and experience unmatched in the industry.
In the past decade, we've invested $3 billion to advance more electric architecture, and we'll invest more than $150 million additional in the next few years. These investments have enabled us to improve the power density of key parts of electric systems, and we have ongoing research to support more electric architecture in both next-generation single-aisle commercial air transport aircraft and 6th-generation fighters.
In short, we're powering the promise of more electric flight.
Powering through power challenges
A fully electric, transcontinental aircraft would quickly address the fuel, carbon and noise issues outlined previously – but unfortunately, at this time it's untenable.
It comes down to the challenge of energy density and power density. The task ahead of us is evident when you consider that jet fuel has 50 times the energy density of today's batteries, and a typical jet engine has three times the power density of today's electric engines.
In practical terms, this means that a sophisticated battery that could power a commercial air transport aircraft would be so heavy that the aircraft would be unfeasible – aerodynamically, operationally and economically. Even at a smaller scale – for instance, a smaller, regional electric aircraft – battery weight is more achievable physically, but the lower power density means the plane would have a range so limited it would essentially render it economically unsustainable.
But it's not just about generating more power, it's also about being able to control, protect and manage the power and thermal environment. Significant amounts of electrical power at altitude is not an easy thing to manage, and real expertise is needed.
Highly efficient power distribution and conversion is required to maximize the use of available power and minimize the thermal management system. High voltage systems will be required to help achieve this for commercial aircraft. However, isolating very high voltage at altitude is challenging. Additional spacing and insulation systems are required, and that impacts weight. Also the safe use and management of electricity on an aircraft – the system design – is critically important and another crucial challenge.
While an all-electric transcontinental aircraft will need orders of magnitude improvement in energy and power density (along with heightened power management solutions), there is another option to deliver electric propulsion in a technologically feasible way: hybrid-electric propulsion.
The promise of hybrid-electric power
By combining the power of traditional engines with energy-saving and environmentally friendlier electric technologies, we believe we can achieve an optimum balance in a relatively quick time frame.
It would begin small, of course. To power a regional, hybrid-electric aircraft with usable range and less than 50 passengers, the energy and power density of current batteries will need to double. That's challenging but doable. In fact, we believe there is a path to achieve this in the next few years, and that a hybrid-electric passenger aircraft with a range of 500 miles and capable of carrying 50 passengers could be certified within the next 10 years.
Thinking bigger, a single-aisle, 100-seat hybrid-electric aircraft will require densities to double yet again. This capability is at least an additional 10 years beyond the regional case, and would mark a 4x density improvement over 15 years.
Proving power through The Grid
To support these endeavors, we recently unveiled our plans for The Grid, a 25,000-square-foot, high-power, high-voltage electric systems lab in Rockford, Illinois. The Grid will be one of a select few facilities in the world with the capability to test complete electric propulsion systems up to one megawatt. We will also continue to leverage the lab to create advanced electric systems for the next generation of more electric fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, including commercial, military, business, UAV and urban air mobility platforms.
Planning for a more electric world
As we look at the route ahead, there are clearly challenges in moving our industry toward a more electric world. But Collins Aerospace is prepared to embrace them, and the combination of skills and experience we bring to the challenge – our expertise in electric systems, environmental systems and engine systems – is unmatched.
And, most important, the results of this investment for OEMs, airlines, passengers and the global environment will be transformative. In fact, in addition to significant reductions in airline operating and maintenance costs, our studies indicate that hybrid-electric propulsion will:
- Improve fuel consumption up to 40 percent
- Reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20 percent
This investment in next-generation electric and hybrid-electric systems for use on current and emerging commercial and military platforms is not just the right call. It's a critical first step in sustainably growing the industry – from the company that's dedicated to redefining it.