It is not certain that electricity will be the end of mobility, but it cannot be left out of the equation for the time being. Airbus has now found a way to make it more efficient.
It looks increasingly likely that by the time the charging systems are in place, and the dead batteries are no longer sitting at the bottom of the sea, another source of energy will be ready. But that remains to be seen. However, what Japanese car manufacturers have been dreaming about for years could soon be solved by Airbus, albeit not in the way that Toyota, for example, has imagined (in simple terms: an explosive engine that burns liquid hydrogen instead of petrol; or in other devices: a small fuel cell that burns liquid hydrogen to generate electricity).
One area of concern is aircraft manufacturing. Long-haul aviation is highly polluting and, for the time being, kerosene provides the energy density for large passenger aircraft to fly longer distances. Meanwhile, the time is fast approaching when they will have to reduce their CO2 emissions to zero. According to New Atlas, the Airbus concept is ready and the solution is close. Moreover, the basic physics research needed for the new propulsion technology has been done.
Energy density is very important in aircraft, so that the fuel required does not take up a disproportionate amount of space. And on a transatlantic flight, you can’t really refuel halfway. Until now, this has been a major weakness of electric propulsion. But Airbus engineers have come up with a concept to squeeze amazing reserves out of the electric powertrain. Hydrogen helps. They have found that if liquid hydrogen is cooled to a cryogenic state (Airbus uses it at -253.15°C) and fed into the electric drive train, almost all of its energy and material properties are changed to its advantage.
According to the theoretical model, cryogenic hydrogen cools the system to such an extent that the entire electric powertrain becomes superconducting, i.e. it loses its resistance and its efficiency skyrockets (almost literally here). Airbus calculates that for the same amount of work (W), half the mass of fuel is needed compared to an electric chain operating at normal temperature, and the energy loss is halved and a much lower voltage is sufficient.
This may sound more like one of Nikola Tesla’s secret inventions (lost/FBI confiscated if you like) than a feasible device. But if Airbus is to be believed, a prototype of the Ascend propulsion system will be ready in three years. It will be a 500 kW (670 hp) powertrain with cables, controls, electronics and motors – and of course lots of cryogenic hydrogen.
If the concept can take physical form, it will be a huge win for Airbus: the new powertrain will be much lighter than current engines, meaning the aircraft will be able to carry a much larger payload – with zero emissions. And the batteries will be something of an issue.