Electric flying taxis – fiction or the future?

Richard Dunne
5 June, 23

The aviation industry has long been considered one of the most significant contributors to global carbon emissions. As concerns about climate change continue to mount, the drive towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuelled flight have become increasingly urgent. Electrification has emerged as a promising solution to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. However, a nuanced approach is required that considers the unique requirements of each sector to achieve a sustainable and effective transition.

EVTOL vehicles – a lift to the future

One potential avenue to cleaner air mobility is through the use of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles as regional air taxis. This holds the promise of reduced transit times from regional hubs to major airports, which is appealing to passengers that can access these services, and gives the potential to reduce the environmental impact of short haul flights, whether fixed or rotary wing. The economic viability of regional air taxis may yet be a barrier, nevertheless, this industry is rapidly evolving and it’s feasibility and long-term viability will soon become clear.

The development of eVTOLs is already creating a new emphasis on carbon efficiency in the aerospace industry, which is chipping away at its carbon footprint. However, to truly understand how to go beyond net zero, it is necessary to close the loop on the technology and it’s use cases by simulating and quantifying the sustainability of products upstream and downstream, including their recyclability. This approach can help to create a more sustainable aviation industry that considers the entire lifecycle of its products before investing in technology and the critical infrastructure to support it. Such an approach needs not only the right sustainability and electrification specific tools, but the right level of electrification specific experience as well.

The hydrogen economy

For heavier, longer-range aircraft, electrification in isolation is unlikely to be the answer due to the lack of battery power density that currently exists. If we’re looking for a molecule that is more effective at storing energy, we should turn our attention to  the emerging hydrogen economy. By considering the whole propulsion system, we can explore solutions like cryogenically storing hydrogen as fuel. This can then be used to cool the motor before the hydrogen is provided to the fuel cell. This could drastically improve the performance of the motor, which is an inherently thermally limited system. This could unlock greater propulsion system efficiency and downsizing of the system as well.

We are significant strides away from the hydrogen economy becoming an every-day reality. This is in no small part due to infrastructure and the aerospace supply base needing to make a drastic shift to support the hydrogen economy. However, it does promise real and viable impact upon the sustainability of the aviation industry.

Where will the future take us?

The future of electrification in the aviation industry requires a blended approach that considers a range of options. While eVTOLs have the potential to revolutionize regional air travel, the emerging hydrogen economy may offer the better solution for larger aircraft in the long term. To truly achieve a sustainable transition, the entire lifecycle of products must be considered, including their recyclability. By taking a system level whole life cycle approach, the aviation industry can move towards its sustainability goals and reduce its impact on the environment.

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