Explained: What is an ‘e-plane’, and how does it work?

The world's first electric commercial aircraft owned and operated by Harbour Air is seen landing following its maiden flight in Richmond, British Columbia, Tuesday. (AP Photo)

The "world's first all-electric commercial aircraft" has completed a short flight. The "ePlane" operated by Harbour Air, North America’s largest seaplane operator, and magniX, a company that builds propulsion systems for electric aircraft, took off from Vancouver in Canada on Tuesday (December 10).

The 6-passenger DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver seaplane, with a 750-horsepower propulsion system producing zero emissions, was piloted by Harbour Air founder and chief executive Greg McDougall.

In a press release issued by Harbour Air, Roei Ganzarski, the CEO of magniX, said: "The transportation industry and specifically the aviation segment that has been, for the most part, stagnant since the late 1930s, is ripe for a massive disruption. Now we are proving that low-cost, environmentally friendly, commercial electric air travel can be a reality in the very near future."

Harbour Air's stated aim is to electrify most of its fleet by 2022, and the two companies described this week's successful flight as the first step towards building the "world's first all-electric commercial fleet".

The statement said: "This historic flight signifies the start of the third era in aviation -- the electric age."

How did the first flight go?

The ePlane covered a distance of 100 miles (160 km) over 15 minutes. Such a seaplane flight is suitable for shorter trips across Vancouver's lower mainland. For instance, the distance between Vancouver and British Columbia’s capital Victoria is roughly 58 miles.

According to Engadget, while a DHC-2 Beaver aircraft fitted with traditional turbine engines burns about $300 worth of fuel per hour, the same aircraft with an electric motor would consume electricity worth $10-$20 to fly 100 miles.

Even so, such an electric aircraft can carry only up to 5-6 passengers. Longer flights by larger aircraft would require much greater power, for which significant innovations in the field of battery technology will be required.

How far are we from zero-emission long-distance air travel?

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), air transport contributes up to 2 per cent of global manmade carbon dioxide emissions. In 2017, civil aviation emitted about 859 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Existing technologies cannot help the aviation industry make significant reductions in emissions -- and this is where electric and hybrid-electric systems come in. But the technology is still some distance away from being used in long-distance air travel.

Aircraft propellers or airscrews are traditionally rotated with the help of an engine. The propeller lifts the aircraft forward, using up fuel in the process, and emitting carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere.

Airbus developed the world’s first fully-electric, four-engine aerobatic aircraft in 2010, and this was followed by the development of the aircraft E-Fan that crossed the English Channel in 2015.

By 2021, Airbus expects that E-Fan’s successor E-Fan X, which will be over 30 times more powerful, will take its first flight. According to the Airbus website, "For Airbus, our work in electric propulsion aims to drive the commercialisation of zero-emission, all-electric urban air mobility vehicles and, eventually, large commercial aircraft. Our goal is to make the technology available to fly a 100-passenger aircraft based on electric and hybrid-electric technology within the 2030s timeframe."

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