The world’s first hybrid plane that can recharge itself mid flight has been successfully tested at Sywell Aerodrome in Northamptonshire. The aircraft has been created by a team at Cambridge University, working with Boeing, who carried out the maiden flight at the airfield on December 23.
They hope that the plane will be able to provide new forms of cleaner, low-carbon air travel.Hybrid engines – which are gaining popularity in cars – combine a battery and a petrol engine. Doing so uses 30 per cent less fuel than a plane with a petrol-only engine. The petrol engine works with the battery-powered one at take-off and climb (when the plane needs extra power), but the electric motor can then switch into generator mode and recharges the batteries, or help the motor in minimizing fuel consumption. The same technology is used in hybrid cars.
“Although hybrid cars have been available for more than a decade, what’s been holding back the development of hybrid or fully-electric aircraft until now is battery technology,’ said Dr Paul Robertson of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who led the project.
“Until recently, they have been too heavy and didn’t have enough energy capacity. But with the advent of improved lithium-polymer batteries, similar to what you’d find in a laptop computer, hybrid aircraft – albeit at a small scale – are now starting to become viable.”
Based on a commercially available single seater, the aircraft is also able to recharge its batteries in flight. During the tests the plane performed a series of ‘hops’ along the runway, before a flight at over 1,500 feet. But passengers won’t be able to board a hybrid plane any time soon, as a jetline would only be able to stay airborne for a matter of minutes.
Dr Robertson said that while the successful flight is an important step in the development of hybrid or fully-electric aircraft, more research is required before commercial airliners will be powered entirely with electric motors. Currently if all the engines and all the fuel in a modern aircraft were replaced by batteries, it would have a total flying time of roughly ten minutes.