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First Test of a Parallel Hybrid-Electric Airplane

Category: Science & Technology
Posted: 01:04PM

For years we have seen hybrid cars on the roads, but a look to sky only shows us airplanes with more conventional, combustion engines. There has been interest in electric planes for some time, but the technology is not there yet. Hybrid-electric planes however could come much sooner, and recently researchers at the University of Cambridge, with Boeing, have built and successfully tested just such a demonstrator plane.

One of the reasons it has taken until now for hybrid aircraft to be developed is weight. Batteries have been prohibitively heavy, but with new lithium-polymer batteries, which can be found in some laptops, the concept is becoming possible. In this case the plane's power system uses a 4-stroke piston engine and electric motor/generator. Both were attached to the propeller using the same drive pulley, allowing the engine and motor to work together at take-off and when climbing, which are the times you need the most power. When cruising though, the motor can be switched off while the engine runs at its most efficient speed, or assist the engine. It could also send some power back to the batteries, recharging them like in a hybrid car.

Compared to a similar, but combustion-only plane, the demonstrator the researchers built could use up to 30% less fuel. There is still a lot of work to do before we see more hybrid aircraft, but this opens up the possibilities, in part by allowing for new experimentation. For example, new fuels could be tested in the engine since the motor could serve as a backup, if something went wrong.



Source: University of Cambridge

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