The development of the Airbus' E-Fan family accelerates the journey toward environmentally-friendly aviation.
The E-Fan is bringing more-electric propulsion to the aviation industry. Developed in an Airbus-led European programme, the E-Fan’s history-making first version was designed specifically for electric power – an important stepping stone on Airbus’s electric aircraft roadmap and toward the future of electric and hybrid flight.
In a second step, E-Fan was transformed into an updated “Plus” version with a hybrid configuration for longer flight endurance. E-Fan Plus – which debuted during the summer of 2016 – incorporates an internal combustion engine as a range extender in addition to the aircraft’s on-board lithium-ion batteries.
These two propulsion system configurations – and ongoing innovation – highlight the aircraft’s role as a technology demonstrator that allows the company to make important advances on its electric aircraft roadmap.
Airbus's research and technology network is leading a company-wide electric aircraft roadmap. This strategy outlines a step-by-step approach for Airbus’s short-, medium- and long-term development of electric planes.
The E-Fan demonstrator was a first step in our long-term goals of potentially developing a hybrid-electric regional airliner or helicopter.
The product strategy is closely supported by the roadmap’s other component – the concurrent development of ground and flying demonstrators to evaluate the feasibility and benefits of e-aircraft technology.
This activity is led by Airbus’s E-Aircraft System House and covers research on a wide range of disruptive technologies and programmes, along with collaborative projects. The knowledge and expertise gained will enable improvements across the company's product range, including more on-board electrical power to increase aircraft efficiency, reduce noise and lower emissions.
Imagine a short-range commercial aircraft that is powered by hydrogen fuel, and emits no harmful gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s the potential of fuel cells.
This exciting concept for electric propulsion is one of the many promising ideas that could play a huge role in helping the aviation industry reach its ambitious environmental targets.
“Fuel cells are far out, but maybe not too far away,” explained Christian Wolff, Head of the Electrochemical Systems Team – as part of the Airbus’s research and technology network, which is leading the E-Fan programme and the company’s electric-airplane initiatives.
Fuel cells: How they work
For aviation applications, hydrogen/air fuel cells could produce electric power in the 15-MW range that is necessary for commercial aircraft jet engines.
In these low temperature proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, hydrogen fuel is supplied to the fuel cell’s anode. In the anode, an electro-chemical reaction separates the hydrogen into negatively-charged electrons and positively-charged protons.
The electrons create an electrical current that is distributed through a circuit, while the protons travel through a substance called a proton exchange membrane (PEM), which blocks all electrons.
Airbus researchers are exploring the application of fuel cells integrated directly into the aircraft electric engine.
For this configuration fuel cells are arranged as multiple “stacks” directly alongside an electric engine. They are positioned around the inner fixed structure that encases the engine’s fan blades, along with magnets on the rotor and coils on the stator.
The revolutionary idea is that the fuel cells’ direct current output is transferred directly to the motor coils thus driving the fan blades directly without heavy wiring, bus bars, converters, or batteries.
Fuel cells generate electrical current by converting chemical energy to electrical energy, and – unlike batteries, which have a fixed supply of energy – can continuously provide energy as long as fuel is supplied. The only by-products of the chemical reaction are water and heat.
On the other side of the cell’s PEM is its cathode, where oxygen (air) is supplied to the system. The protons – arriving through the PEM – and electrons, returning from the electrical circuit, bond with the oxygen to form the cell’s two waste products: water (H2O) and heat. In aircraft, the fuel cells would be cooled by airflow through the electric engines.
“Exploring fuel cells deeper is important as we study technologies and concepts that could bring about a new generation of electric aircraft. A breakthrough in fuels cells for aviation could be game-changer!”
Head of the Electrochemical Systems Team at Airbus Innovations
“Fuel cells are part of the wide range of long-term concepts under consideration by the Group for electric and hybrid aircraft,” Wolff said. “We know the basic elements exist and are exploring how to optimize them for a new-generation of more electric aircraft.”
Airbus Innovations and Airbus have developed a demonstrator to test integrated fuel cell applications in e-aircraft.
As a demonstrator aircraft, the all-electric E-Fan is serving as a platform for Airbus Innovations and its partners to evaluate breakthrough technologies for electric and hybrid aircraft. The E-Fan team has continuously worked to enhance this innovative electric plane since its introduction, providing significant performance improvements and also gaining expertise that potentially could be applied to Airbus’s other products.
At 11 a.m., 10 July 2015, on a calm, sunny summer morning, the Airbus Innovations E-Fan touched down in Calais to enter its name in the record books.
The all-electric plane became the first twin-engine electric plane taking off with its own power to negotiate the English Channel, more than 100 years after Louis Blériot first made the intrepid journey.
Airbus all-electric E-Fan made the 74km crossing from Lydd, England to Calais, France in about 37 minutes.
Travelling in the opposite direction to the pioneering Frenchman and powered by lithium-ion batteries, the E-Fan took off from Lydd on the English south coast, completing the 74 kilometre flight east to Calais, France, in around 37 minutes. Flown by test pilot Didier Esteyne, the all-electric plane weighs around 600 kilogrammes and travelled at an altitude of about 3,500 feet.
E-Fan’s test pilot and designer Didier Esteyne (left) and Airbus Chief Technical Officer Jean Botti celebrate the successful crossing of the English Channel
While the E-Fan had already made more than 100 flights prior to cross-channel flight, preparations for this very special trip were extensive and included a dedicated test and verification programme put together by French flight authorities, Airbus and its partners.
“That is something which may not have been necessary 100 years ago, when Blériot’s flight was just a race to be first. But today, following rules and obtaining certifications is of crucial importance for the future of safe, reliable and certifiable electric flight,” explained Jean Botti, the former Airbus Chief Technical Officer who launched the E-Fan programme.
The 10th of July 2015 will now join the list of famous days in aviation history, and I’m sure Blériot would be proud of this achievement
Former Airbus Chief Technical Officer
The path of 2 pioneers: E-Fan's cross-Channel journey could herald a new era of electric aviation, just like Louis Blériot's first Channel flight in 1909 helped launch the French aviation industry.
Pioneering spirit lives on
While the E-Fan’s successful journey demonstrated the future possibilities of electric flight, it was also homage to Louis Blériot, one of the all-time greats of aviation.
In 1909, the English Channel had already been crossed by balloon, but just six years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, few people expected someone to make the trip by plane. Indeed, the Daily Mail newspaper offered a £1,000 prize to the first person to make the 37km flight.
Frenchman Louis Blériot was a pioneer in the early days of aviation.
A passionate inventor and engineer, Blériot believed his Blériot XI monoplane was up to the task. On the morning of 25 July, the Frenchman set out from Calais, flying at 70 km/h, 70 metres above the water.
Like so many others in the aviation industry, Louis Blériot has been a hero and inspiration to me and it gives me great pride that I am able to honour his legacy with the first ever electric-powered Channel crossing
E-Fan’s test pilot and designer
Blériot overcame poor visibility and gusting winds to land close to Dover Castle. Almost overnight, he was a star and his record-breaking aircraft became the first to enter mass production, launching the French aviation industry. His company was based in Suresnes, near Paris, at the same site where part of the E-Fan team is now located.