Woutd it ever be possible to power a plane or helicopter electricly?

Will batteries ever be able to store enough energy to power an aircraft? How much energy and how much power are required for various types of aircraft? For example, what does it take to power a fully loaded 747 from New York to Beijing?


This webpage says it takes about 10^12 joules of energy for Atlantic crossing.

However, it doesn’t have any numbers for the how much a theoretical set of batteries would weigh to deliver that much energy. Possibly more than than the payload capacity of a 747?

What’s the lightest battery per watt delivered? Lithium? Hydrogen?

Fuel cells and room-temperature superconductors could make this a reality.

Not quite a 747:


Motorgliders have been taking off on electricity and then gliding for many years, just lately small airplanes have been electrically powered, but they are small (two seat) and have very short range.

There is a pretty good overview about existing designs on wiki.

The German Antares 20E motorglider is already and the Chinese Yuneec E430 ultralight will be soon commercially available.
There is also quite a lot of research activity, with round-the-world flights planned. The biggest flying plane is the Solar Impulse, with a wingspan of 210 ft (64 m) and a mass of only 3,500 lb (1,588 kg).

Big airliners will be the last machines on earth to use hydrocarbons as fuel, though. The required energy densities are so high, nothing else comes close.

Batteries are much too heavy.
Hydrogen is lightweight, but has a very low density and is very difficult to store cryogenically. Fuel cells with the required power output are not exactly easy to imagine, either. However, there are some projects where the auxiliary power unit, a small turbine that provides electrical energy when the engines are not running, is planned to be replaced by fuel cells.

You could, of course, power a large commercial airliner with a small nuclear reactor, although the chances of that ever being approved as an idea are close to zero. If it can be done on a submarine, it can be done in the air assuming you can solve the weight problem.

The US military flew a nuclear reactor in an aircraft as part of the nuclear powered bomber program back during the cold war, although it did not power the plane during those test flights.

Nuclear powered aircraft didn’t use the reactor to generate electricity to power the fans. It used the reactor heat to accelerate air (and in some designs used it as a fluid in the primary :eek:).

How about a helicopter or some type of VTOL aircraft?


You’d still have to solve the “ZOMG! My children will mutate into gigantic orange toads if it crash-lands within 150 miles of my house!!!1!11!” problem.

It’s all about the source of electricity. Known battery and fuel cell technology won’t do the job for general purpose aircraft. Electric models have been around for a long time now. Experiments have been done with high altitude craft using solar cells to driving electric motors, but these planes can just keep their own weight aloft without any significant payload.
It was once considered impossible to make a steam-driven airplane, but it has been done, but not adopted as a practical method to my knowledge.
It is generally accepted that most usage of petroleum for land craft, heating, and electrical generation can be replaced with other means, but without breakthroughs in technology, aircraft will keep burning oil based fuels. But breakthroughs in technology keep happening, maybe something is around the corner.
The use of electricity hasn’t been limited only by the weight of batteries, and other sources of electricity. The weight of electric motors is a problem as well, but new technologies may change that as well.

Yes, that was the original design idea for the technology of the time, but I think the modern method would be to use it for power generation rather than to move air. My point was that the US lifted a reactor into the air and had it running, and adequately shielded to protect the crew (at least mostly) back in the cold war, so we should be able to at least do the same in the current era; that it wouldn’t be totally science fiction to even entertain the idea.

So you read that NIH study too, huh?