Question About Electric Aircraft Propulsion

  • #1
Anand Sivaram
90
43
TL;DR Summary
Question About Electric Aircraft Propulsion
I have been thinking about this subject for some time now, based on the following considerations

1) Many companies are working on Electric Aircraft Propulsion, high energy density Li-Ion batteries are used to power Electric motors and they drive propellers. This is the approach every one is using.

2) We know the problems of Propellers, when the tip of the propeller starting to approach supersonic speed, then the efficiency goes down drastically.

3) That is one of the reasons of jet engine development, first turbojet and then turbofan. Using these engines planes could reach supersonic speed.

4) Hypothetical consideration: When the battery technology improves and the energy density starts approaching that of fossil fuels, it could store large amount of energy.

Now the question:
Could we reach supersonic speed with battery powered aircraft considering (4) and (2). Or, could we power gas turbine with electricity?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
2022 Award
22,257
6,329
4) Hypothetical consideration: When the battery technology improves and the energy density starts approaching that of fossil fuels, it could store large amount of energy.

That's very unlikely in the near to moderate future in my opinion. Fossil fuels are extremely energy dense, which is one of the features that makes them useful over other energy sources, and it's very difficult for batteries to even approach their energy density. Jet fuel has an energy density of around 43 MJ/kg, while lithium ion batteries are about 0.8 at the top end, so we're talking roughly a fifty-fold difference between them.

Could we reach supersonic speed with battery powered aircraft considering (4) and (2). Or, could we power gas turbine with electricity?

The issue is that jet engines don't rely on a moving prop to generate their thrust (with the exception of turboprop engines), they rely on the heating and expansion of gas powered by the combustion of fuel. How would you do something similar using electric power?
 
  • Like
Likes Anand Sivaram and russ_watters
  • #3
russ_watters
Mentor
22,060
9,156
The issue is that jet engines don't rely on a moving prop to generate their thrust (with the exception of turboprop engines), they rely on the heating and expansion of gas powered by the combustion of fuel. How would you do something similar using electric power?
Well, theoretically you could use a giant electric heater to heat the air in the "combustion chamber", but I'm not sure if that's really doable.
 
  • Like
Likes Anand Sivaram
  • #4
anorlunda
Staff Emeritus
Insights Author
11,209
8,610
Well, theoretically you could use a giant electric heater to heat the air in the "combustion chamber", but I'm not sure if that's really doable.

Yeah that's true but you wouldn't get the volume expansion ratio of burning liquid fuel to produce combustion gasses. Perhaps you could use the electric power to boil water instead of heat air. I agree, not sure it is really doable.
 
  • Like
Likes Anand Sivaram and russ_watters
  • #5
Anand Sivaram
90
43
Thanks All. Got the points about electrical heating and the volume expansion of liquid fuels.
It could be one of the reasons for using After Burners in supersonic aircraft to get extra thrust at the expense of fuel consumption.

Just came to my mind, how about in situ electrolysis to get H2 and burn it in gas turbine?
 
  • #6
Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
2022 Award
22,257
6,329
Just came to my mind, how about in situ electrolysis to get H2 and burn it in gas turbine?

Why not just carry a tank of H2 instead? The cost, weight, and complexity of storing it is almost certainly better than carrying around all the equipment for electrolysis, especially batteries.
 
  • Like
Likes Anand Sivaram
  • #7
Anand Sivaram
90
43
True
 
  • #9
hmmm27
Gold Member
1,057
550
Does anybody know how to make ball lightning ? Just park one of those suckers in the erstwhile combustion chamber.
 
  • #10
Anand Sivaram
90
43
Basically I was thinking about sustainable, Carbon neutral aircraft propulsion - propeller free, as all commercial jet airlines are faster than propellers.
This is the recap of what I understood, including from our discussions here.

- Currently, turbine fuels like Jet A-1 are selected based on Gravimetric and Volumetric energy density, flash point, safety etc. in mind.
- Battery based propulsion are not an option - they could power propellers only.
- Nuclear propulsion is discussed here - quite interesting concept - but, does not seem to have any traction after 1950s and 60s.
- Stored hydrogen could be used for the jet engine, but H2 has very bad volumetric density and safety also could be a concern.
- Other forms of heating could be used, but heat transfer to air and volume expansion of air many not be sufficient enough.

- With all of these, I think the only option could be renewable biofuel based aviation fuel.
 
  • Like
Likes anorlunda
  • #11
anorlunda
Staff Emeritus
Insights Author
11,209
8,610
With all of these, I think the only option could be renewable biofuel based aviation fuel.
Pretty good summary, but why dismiss propellers just because of speed?

At some point, being green must necessarily address behavior modification. Is it off limits to ask people to travel slower for the benefit of the environment?
 
  • Like
Likes O2PiArr, Anand Sivaram and russ_watters
  • #12
russ_watters
Mentor
22,060
9,156
Pretty good summary, but why dismiss propellers just because of speed?

At some point, being green must necessarily address behavior modification. Is it off limits to ask people to travel slower for the benefit of the environment?
Also, the actual sacrifice for many routes is not that large. There are a ton of short-hop flights that currently use regional jets that don't even reach typical cruising altitude before descending to land. These flights used to be flown in turbo-props. The fractional change in total trip duration from adding 15 minutes to a 45 minute flight (when you spent an hour waiting at the gate, 30 minutes loading and 20 minutes waiting to take off) is not a major sacrifice.

I also think for longer-haul flights they may need to sacrifice the current small plane, lots of flights business model and go back to fewer flights in larger airplanes. Even with conventional fuel this increases efficiency, but it also opens up the door for alternate fuels with lower volumetric energy density (e.g.; hydrogen).
 
  • Like
Likes Anand Sivaram, anorlunda and gmax137
  • #13
hmmm27
Gold Member
1,057
550
Basically I was thinking about sustainable, Carbon neutral aircraft propulsion
You do know that "sustainable, carbon neutral" means denying the planet of a portion of its carbon-sequestration abilities.
- propeller free, as all commercial jet airlines are faster than propellers.
Why would speed be an issue ?
This is the recap of what I understood, including from our discussions here.

- Currently, turbine fuels like Jet A-1 are selected based on Gravimetric and Volumetric energy density, flash point, safety etc. in mind.
cost, availability, lubricity...
- Battery based propulsion are not an option - they could power propellers only.
motorjets.
- Nuclear propulsion is discussed here - quite
interesting concept - but, does not seem to have any traction after 1950s and 60s.
Science experiments, paid for by the military, with promises of reconnaisance aircraft and ready bombers that could stay up for weeks at a time. More modern reactors, and you could probably stuff one into an A380... okay, maybe not an A380.
- Stored hydrogen could be used for the jet engine, but H2 has very bad volumetric density and safety also could be a concern.
BWB's and similar designs could take care of the volumetric issues. What safety issues ? (apart from those of any gaseous fuel)
- Other forms of heating could be used, but heat transfer to air and volume expansion of air many not be sufficient enough.
Take a closer look at the nuclear engines.
- With all of these, I think the only option could be renewable biofuel based aviation fuel.
Feel free to explain the advantages of constantly burning the same area of land over and over, compared to simply letting existing vegetation soak up CO2.

I'm not claiming there are none but - mostly for the sake of debate - I posit that it's a zero sum game which has the side effect of destroying natural habitats. Secondary effects, unrelated to mitigating global warming - redistributing income from countries that may be perceived as having too much, for instance - might be beneficial overall, or might be disastrous : I can't tell.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
  • Like
Likes Anand Sivaram
  • #15
Baluncore
Science Advisor
12,084
6,203
Modern jet engines employ a high-bypass design. The outer part of the engine is effectively a ducted fan, which is a propeller. Efficient propulsion will involve propellers turning slowly, with n=3, or more blades. n is proportional to 1/RPM. High tip velocity will not occur as it is inefficient.

High efficiency requires low speed because drag is proportional to the square of the airspeed. Lift is also a square law function of airspeed. A heavier-than-air craft must be supported by lift for the duration of the flight. The rate of energy flow from the batteries determines the maximum airspeed possible. Propellers can be optimised for that situation.

High efficiency requires long wings, like a glider, to reduce induced drag. The top surface of the wings can be covered with a solar cell film, which becomes more efficient at high altitudes, and can charge the batteries to increase the range.
 
  • Like
Likes O2PiArr, zekise and Anand Sivaram
  • #16
hmmm27
Gold Member
1,057
550
hmmm27 said:
motorjets
That isn't battery powered.
It is if the motor driving the impeller is electric (and battery powered). I don't recall how much of the thrust going through the turbine (the spinny bit at the back of the combustion chamber) is required to drive the compressor (the spinny bit in front of the combustion chamber), but it's not trivial.

If the compressor is driven by an electric motor, the jet doesn't need to drive it, itself.
 
  • #17
Anand Sivaram
90
43
Thanks all for the wonderful answers. I get the advantages of propeller especially in short-haul regional where the extra time taken is minimal.
 
  • #18
cjl
Science Advisor
1,980
569
If you're just talking about replacing commercial airplanes, you don't need the heating or expansion effects mentioned above. You could just as well simply have electric ducted fans that would look much like the existing turbofan engines except with the core replaced with an electric motor. Modern turbofans gain almost all of their thrust from the front fan, rather than from thermal expansion of the core flow through a supersonic nozzle (the way turbojets do). As a result, you'd gain just about the same performance without the core and just driving the fan with an electric motor.

The problem with this is the amount of power required. A GE90 used on the Boeing 777 required something on the order of a hundred thousand horsepower to drive the front fan at full power. An electric motor of this power level is both too large and too heavy to replace the jet core, so we'd need some way of substantially improving the power density of electric motors in order to do this. In addition, there's the above-mentioned issue with storing enough energy. A long range jetliner like a 777 might be 30-40% fuel by weight at takeoff, and batteries are more than an order of magnitude worse in energy density than jet fuel. In addition, long range jetliners take advantage of the fact that they get lighter as they use fuel, improving their efficiency late in the cruise and decreasing the mass and requirements on parts like landing gear and brakes, since their maximum landing weight is significantly lower than their maximum takeoff weight. Batteries have none of these advantages, so it would have to be designed to be at full weight for the entire duration of the flight.
 
  • Like
  • Informative
Likes sysprog, zekise and Anand Sivaram
  • #19
Anand Sivaram
90
43
@cjl Got your points about ducted fan.
Good point about fuel getting consumed. Now I remember one post somewhere by a commercial pilot going from Buenos Aires to Paris. How he takes the cruising altitude in steps from FL250 to FL390 as and when the aircraft gets lighter, to optimize the fuel consumption.
 
  • #20
russ_watters
Mentor
22,060
9,156
It is if the motor driving the impeller is electric (and battery powered). I don't recall how much of the thrust going through the turbine (the spinny bit at the back of the combustion chamber) is required to drive the compressor (the spinny bit in front of the combustion chamber), but it's not trivial.

If the compressor is driven by an electric motor, the jet doesn't need to drive it, itself.
It still needs fuel to be a jet. I think something on the order of 20% of the power is for turning the compressor and the rest for thrust. So you could only save 20% of the fuel at the expense of increasing the weight.

[edit: or I suppose you could just forgo the "jet" part of the jet as per cjl.]
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes Anand Sivaram
  • #21
russ_watters
Mentor
22,060
9,156
If you're just talking about replacing commercial airplanes, you don't need the heating or expansion effects mentioned above. You could just as well simply have electric ducted fans that would look much like the existing turbofan engines except with the core replaced with an electric motor. Modern turbofans gain almost all of their thrust from the front fan, rather than from thermal expansion of the core flow through a supersonic nozzle (the way turbojets do). As a result, you'd gain just about the same performance without the core and just driving the fan with an electric motor.
I thought that was only true at low speed whereas at high speed the "jet" part provides most of the thrust?

[edit: Hmm -- I'm seeing someone's off the cuff answer in another forum saying about 75% at takeoff and 60% at cruise is coming from the fan/bypass. That's a lot more than I realized at cruise.
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes zekise
  • #22
Anand Sivaram
90
43
>> I thought that was only true at low speed whereas at high speed the "jet" part provides most of the thrust?

I just had a look at bypass ratio of turbofan engines.
It is the ratio of airflow through the outside ducted fan to the air flowing through the engine core. It is selected considering the application and the speed in mind.
0 = pure turbojet, 0.3 to 0.6 for Mach 2 supersonic fighters, for modern A380 and B777 engines the bypass ratio is between 8.0 to 10.0, for turboprops >50 ratio.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bypass_ratio
 
  • Like
Likes zekise
  • #23
sophiecentaur
Science Advisor
Gold Member
27,848
6,339
Well, theoretically you could use a giant electric heater to heat the air in the "combustion chamber", but I'm not sure if that's really doable.
Energy carrying capacity is crucial with electrical propulsion. Using the stored electricity to heat air in a simulated gas turbine would mean a serious drop in efficiency. Regular jet engines have little better than 40% thermodynamic efficiency and an electrically powered heat engine would not be worth while. It would, by implication, give a range of only 40% of what could be achieved by turning a turbine / fan to move the air through it. Best to stick with the 'high grade' energy that's stored in the batteries.

I believe that the maximum altitude for prop craft is lower than for jet craft and that could be a significant efficiency factor, compared with jets, of you want to travel fast.
 
  • Like
Likes zekise and Anand Sivaram
  • #24
hmmm27
Gold Member
1,057
550
A GE90 used on the Boeing 777 required something on the order of a hundred thousand horsepower to drive the front fan at full power.
Could you post rough calcs on that, please ? The GE90 series produces about 100k lbf thrust, and I always thought that hp was generally less than lbf (at speed).
 
  • #25
skystare
29
29
Theoretically, an electric ducted fan (EDF) could be used for supersonic flight. No gas turbine today operates in a supersonic airflow; variable inlet geometry is used to slow the airflow to subsonic speed at the first compressor or fan. The same would apply to an EDF. For the practical objections, see cjl's post. The actual turbine part of a jet engine has an astonishing power to weight ratio, unlikely to ever be matched by an electric motor.
As aircraft contribute only a percent or two of human CO2 output, IF we could go all nuclear/solar/whatever powered, including electric surface transport, aircraft as they are would be entirely sustainable. As well, just to be extra green, it would be quite practical to synthesize all av-fuel from aboveground carbon.
 
  • Like
Likes zekise and Anand Sivaram
  • #26
Klystron
Gold Member
1,047
1,572
While the thread centers on electric aircraft propulsion, consider what type of airships benefit most from improved props driven by efficient e-motors. @Baluncore 's post hints at modified air frame designs. Dropping supersonic flight and high speed as requirements opens the door for re-evaluating lighter-than-air (LTA) designs.

Neutral/positive bouyant air frames could provide lift for heavy batteries, solar cells and electric motors plus the air frame, crew and cargo. The props only need to provide thrust for movement and to maintain position in wind. Given improved materials, weather forecasting, and other factors absent in the 'golden age of airships'; canny aero engineers should reconsider LTA ships for practical transport including cargo. Time is not a prohibitive factor for tons of cargo and passengers on the water. LTA ships could replace much ground transportation dependent on fossil fuels, even using similar modular containers.

A school was recently constructed in a nearby cul-de-sac. A modest dirigible carried in much of the material and acted as a sky hook crane during construction; an increasingly common sight in our valley. The engines and props were very quiet compared to helicopters and jet engines.
 
  • Like
Likes Anand Sivaram and berkeman
  • #27
cjl
Science Advisor
1,980
569
Could you post rough calcs on that, please ? The GE90 series produces about 100k lbf thrust, and I always thought that hp was generally less than lbf (at speed).
It's been a while since I ran the numbers (so I'm going from memory here), but I'll do some digging. There's no real direct relationship though. It's also worth noting that the front fan horsepower per pound of thrust is going up as higher and higher bypass ratios are becoming common, since obviously a turbojet requires exactly 0 horsepower to drive the front fan, while a large fraction of the engine's power output on a modern high-bypass design is going towards the front fan.
 
  • Like
Likes hmmm27
  • #28
skystare
29
29
Force through distance in time equals power. Without moving anything, no power is expended; thus if you push on a wall with 20 pounds force you use no power because nothing is being moved.
In the case of an aircraft in flight, a jet engine produces one hp per pound of thrust at 325 mph. On the ground with brakes set the engine will still produce power as it is moving air, but not as easily calculated as the in-flight formula.
 
  • #29
sophiecentaur
Science Advisor
Gold Member
27,848
6,339
As aircraft contribute only a percent or two of human CO2 output,
That could be used as an argument against many possible ways to reduce CO2. I can see the logic behind it but an awful lot of that CO2 is due to unnecessary travel. Why have foreign holidays, for instance?

Edit: Unnecessary trade is also a factor. Items are transported from A to B whilst identical items go from B to A; the only reason is the trade deals and the politics involved. As with many such issues, 'Freedom' to trade does not mean that it's justified. This is not Physics, of course but it's certainly a point worth noting.
 
Last edited:
  • Like
  • Haha
Likes zekise, Klystron and Anand Sivaram
  • #30
russ_watters
Mentor
22,060
9,156
While the thread centers on electric aircraft propulsion, consider what type of airships benefit most from improved props driven by efficient e-motors. @Baluncore 's post hints at modified air frame designs. Dropping supersonic flight and high speed as requirements opens the door for re-evaluating lighter-than-air (LTA) designs.

Neutral/positive bouyant air frames could provide lift for heavy batteries, solar cells and electric motors plus the air frame, crew and cargo. The props only need to provide thrust for movement and to maintain position in wind. Given improved materials, weather forecasting, and other factors absent in the 'golden age of airships'; canny aero engineers should reconsider LTA ships for practical transport including cargo. Time is not a prohibitive factor for tons of cargo and passengers on the water. LTA ships could replace much ground transportation dependent on fossil fuels, even using similar modular containers.
I'd really like to see a calculation on the volume of lifting gas required to carry 100,000 tons, to replace a cargo ship.

Then I'd like to see the kinetic energy of impact if one breaks apart at 10,000 ft.
 
  • Like
Likes zekise
  • #31
gmax137
Science Advisor
2,281
1,937
Then I'd like to see the kinetic energy of impact if one breaks apart at 10,000 ft.
Hmm what is the terminal velocity of a shipping container? Say 100 MPH or 45 meters/second. 100,000 tons (10^8 kg) at 45 m/sec gives 100 gigajoules (check my arithmetic). About 24 tons TNT equivalent. Better wear your hardhat when those things are floating overhead :-p
 
  • Haha
Likes zekise
  • #32
Anand Sivaram
90
43
That could be used as an argument against many possible ways to reduce CO2. I can see the logic behind it but an awful lot of that CO2 is due to unnecessary travel. Why have foreign holidays, for instance?

Edit: Unnecessary trade is also a factor. Items are transported from A to B whilst identical items go from B to A; the only reason is the trade deals and the politics involved. As with many such issues, 'Freedom' to trade does not mean that it's justified. This is not Physics, of course but it's certainly a point worth noting.

Absolutely agree..
 
  • #33
Klystron
Gold Member
1,047
1,572
I'd really like to see a calculation on the volume of lifting gas required to carry 100,000 tons, to replace a cargo ship.

Then I'd like to see the kinetic energy of impact if one breaks apart at 10,000 ft.
The reference to water-borne cargo was meant as analogy, perhaps inapt. I have seen an articulated truck loading three standard containers. Most ground vehicles carry only one or two containers. All air traffic entails strict weight and size limitations plus overflight restrictions. Though heavier than air, consider the C5a (https://amcmuseum.org/at-the-museum/aircraft/c-5a-galaxy/).

My point was to consider designing air frames around improved electrical motors. While interesting, the idea of replacing liquid fueled jet engine components with "electric" in an air frame designed around jet propulsion lacks merit.
 
  • #34
gmax137
Science Advisor
2,281
1,937
I was going to let this go, but I just can't.

That could be used as an argument against many possible ways to reduce CO2. I can see the logic behind it but an awful lot of that CO2 is due to unnecessary travel...

Who says what is necessary travel and what is not? Our system in the US and in most of the world is, if you can afford the tickets you can take the trip. Is that a perfect system? Of course not. But it is better than any other I can think of ("Sophie decides," "gmax137 decides," "the FAA decides," "nobody travels...").

Why have foreign holidays, for instance?

There are too many reasons to list. First & foremost might be, "better understanding between different cultures."

Edit: Unnecessary trade is also a factor. Items are transported from A to B whilst identical items go from B to A;

Again, who says what is "necessary trade" and what isn't?

the only reason is the trade deals and the politics involved. As with many such issues, 'Freedom' to trade does not mean that it's justified.

Besides "trade deals and politics," the people involved in the unnecessary trade get paychecks, allowing them to provide shelter and food for their kids. Almost anything can be viewed as "unnecessary." But people find a niche, and make their living filling it.

This is not Physics, of course but it's certainly a point worth noting.
Agree, it isn't physics.

This kind of commentary just feeds the denier trolls, giving more fuel to their belief that climate change is just another excuse for social re-engineering.
 
  • Love
Likes zekise
  • #35
sophiecentaur
Science Advisor
Gold Member
27,848
6,339
belief that climate change is just another excuse for social re-engineering.
I think a bit of global/social re-engineering is seriously needed. "Feeding your kids" is very laudable and we all do it when we can. There is a big difference, though, between enough and so much that other people suffer. When we feeding clothe our kids with food and clothes that are produced on subsistence wages I think we could ask whether that's justified. I find it amazing that 'good Christian people' often seem to limit their 'caring' to their nearest and dearest. "Who is my neighbour?" is a question which was answered in some detail by (according to Luke's Gospel) the founder of their religion.

Who decides what's justified? Well, we can all decide, on the basis of how it affects the less fortunate sections of the world and the environment (there's plenty of information available for good decision making). It isn't an easy one to solve and the last thing I would want would be to impose arbitrary limits. Ninety percent of foreign holidays are truly not 'necessary' and the old chestnut about holidays providing "better contact" with other cultures doesn't apply to most holidaymakers and most destinations. Hotels and swimming pools are indistinguishable the world over and so are theme parks. Staff in the entertainment industry will nearly always speak English and your average holidaymaker could get more information about true foreign cultures from TV or even books than they get on most package trips.

Clever marketing is what has made people desire particular lifestyles. People spend money on things that they are targeted with. (And the 'they' is a small wealthy sub-set of the population.) Individuals can always justify their own holidays and there are a number of extremely 'worthy' and enriching holiday activities available that don't involve a lot of 'consumption'. (Personal choices should involve thought, not reading adverts.)
I can only hope that 'thinking' people will make decisions about their lifestyles that are better informed than if they just the advice they get from the big corporations.
This kind of commentary just feeds the denier trolls, giving more fuel to their belief . . . .
I'm not sure where that argument takes us. The presence of climate change is a separate issue from the possible consequences. Denyers will use all sorts arguments but the basic reason (seldom stated) is that they are terrified that their lifestyles may have to change. Head in the sand is preferable to the logical consequence of actions they would have to take if they concede that it's happening. But denyers don't feed off evidence, as we well know.
 
  • Skeptical
  • Like
Likes zekise and OmCheeto

Suggested for: Question About Electric Aircraft Propulsion

  • Last Post
Replies
15
Views
3K
Replies
8
Views
734
Replies
4
Views
539
Replies
11
Views
839
Replies
7
Views
714
Replies
1
Views
452
Replies
25
Views
1K
Replies
6
Views
1K
Replies
5
Views
2K
Top