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Is the future of flying electric? A company tests a zero-emissions aircraft

Now disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the aviation sector has been one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions in recent years. If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters – accounting for about 2% of the global emissions.

The sector is not included in the Paris Agreement of climate change as one of the areas in which emissions have to be reduced. Nevertheless, companies are trying to find ways of reducing their carbon footprint, including the development of electric planes.

The world’s largest all-electric airplane will fly tomorrow for the first time over Washington state in the US. The plane, a Cessna Caravan with an electric engine developed by magniX, can carry up to nine passengers and might enter commercial service next year -– with a range of 100 miles (160km).

“It’s a niche market. But we can start now, get working on it and push the envelope to progress the entire industry,” said Magnix CEO Roei Ganzarski told The Guardian. “Let’s get to market quickly for the main purpose of being able to start this revolution.”

The airplane that will carry Magnix’s motor has been in production since 1982. By retrofitting the existing plane, Magnix’s goal is to show that commercial electric flight is possible right now. The motor delivers 750 horsepower, which the company says is enough propulsion for “middle mile aircraft” that can carry between 5 and 19 people.

Despite the Caravan would be the largest all-electric plane to fly so far, a Magni500-powered De Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver was the first aircraft to use the engine when it flew over Vancouver in December. The flight was a partnership with Harbour Air, a locally-based regional airline that owns the seaplane.

Ganzarski believes all flights of less than 1,000 miles (1,600km) would be completely electric in 15 years’ time. But he said more work has to be done regarding batteries. “Now that the first commercial aircraft has flown all-electric, battery companies are starting to work more diligently on aerospace-ready battery solutions,” he said.

Electric flight has a wide array of benefits that go beyond emissions reductions, according to Ganzarski. Electric aircraft need less maintenance than fuel-based planes and will be between 50% and 80% cheaper per hour to operate. That could also lead to cheaper ticket prices, he argued.

MagniX is not alone in the uphill battle. A few companies are promising a not-so-distant future of electric air taxis and plenty of others are developing both electric motors and the airframes to use them. The list includes firms like Airbus, Embraer and Rolls-Royce, and startups like Ampaire, Pipstrel Aircraft, and Zunum Aero.

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