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Nasa’s electric plane will cut running costs by up to 40%

20 June, 2016

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is building an aircraft powered by 14 electric motors which, it claims, could cut operating costs by up to 40% compared to conventional aircraft, as well as reducing energy use during high-speed cruising by around 80% .

The experimental plane, designated the X-57 and nicknamed Maxwell (after 19th century Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell), will be based on a conventional four-seater aircraft from the Italian plane-builder, Costruzioni Aeronautiche Tecnam.

Nasa is planning to replace the Tecnam P2006T’s original wing and two petrol-fuelled piston engines by a long, skinny wing containing 14 propellers driven by electric motors – 12 on the leading edge for take-offs and landings, and a larger one on each wing tip for use at cruising altitude.

Nasa’s engineers hope that by distributing the electric power across multiple motors they will be able to achieve a five-fold reduction in the energy needed to cruise at 280km/h (175mph).

Usually, to operate at best fuel efficiency, a plane has to fly slower than its top speed. Nasa says that electric propulsion essentially eliminates this penalty for cruising at higher speeds, potentially cutting flight times and fuel usage, as well as operating costs.

Nasa anticipates several other benefits from the battery-powered planes, such as the elimination of carbon emissions and reducing the demand for the lead-based fuel used by general aviation. Noise levels will also be lower.

An artist's impression of Nasa's X-57 Maxwell electrically-propelled aircraft
Image: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA

The X-57 electric plane marks Nasa’s first use of the X-plane designation in a decade. The X designation – which started in 1947 when the X-1 became the first plane to fly faster than the speed of sound – was assigned to Nasa by the US Air Force.

“With the return of piloted X-planes to Nasa’s research capabilities – which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative – the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” says Nasa administrator, Charles Bolden.

Up to five larger transport-scale X-planes are also planned as part of the initiative, whose goals include demonstrating advanced technologies to reduce fuel use, emissions and noise, and to accelerate their commercialisation.

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