Eighteen months ago magniX on Australia’s Gold Coast achieved a Eureka moment after nine years of development work with electric engines. A potential electric aircraft engine emerged as the frontrunner among the company’s numerous projects, prompting it to hone its focus and open headquarters in Seattle, the home of Boeing in the United States, and one of two international hotbeds of aerospace expertise and supply chains.
MagniX’s iterative developments in engine design, materials and a lightweight liquid cooling system have combined to enable electrification of the sector of light-commercial propeller-driven aircraft capable of carrying up to 20 passengers. Its 751-horsepower engine is intended as a replacement to the Pratt and Whitney PT6, which powers aircraft such as the widely used Cessna 208 Caravan, typically configured to carry nine passengers, and the Beechcraft King Air which can carry 11 passengers.
Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX (pronounced magni-ex) says, “The motors that we’re building are purely electric, running off battery power. So the aircraft will be what I define as completely clean. They will not consume any fuel, nor will they create any emissions.”
Ganzarski is not taking responsibility for the generation of electricity used to charge those batteries, but says that in countries where the solar, wind and hydro resource is plentiful, he can see the potential to “make the entire value stream green”.
The prospect is exciting to Matthew Stocks, Research Fellow at the Australian National University College of Engineering and Computer Science and an expert in photovoltaics. He says, “Australia has been on a rapid transition over the past few years, such that our electricity system could be 100% renewable by 2030.”
Stocks points out that this achievable target is well above Federal Government or opposition ambitions, and adds, “What gets interesting is the various other sectors that we can now electrify: land transport and the electric-vehicle sector is clearly one area; then you’d look at electric heat pumps to displace gas; and then we start to get into difficult areas, such as aviation.”
According to Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, revised in May 2018, the electricity sector accounts for 36% of Australia’s emissions; land transport, 19%; and aviation and shipping, a combined 5%.
It has long been assumed that taking aviation fuel and therefore emissions out of the aerospace would require development of alternative fuels, either from biomass or a hydrogen-carbon combination. In January 2018, Qantas claimed the world’s first dedicated biofuelled flight from the United States to Australia, running on a blended biofuel developed by Canada-based Agrisoma Biosciences and processed from non-food mustard seed, grown in the farming off season.
“Now we’re starting to see interest in using batteries to power flight, and this is a very promising step forward to being able to have a low-carbon option for air transport,” says Stocks.
Ganzarski sees magniX enabling a new, disruptive market for electric light-commercial aircraft carrying smaller numbers of passengers than most frequent commercial flights, and lighter but frequent loads between cities and towns, and between towns.
“Our main mission is to bring back the connectivity of communities,” he says. The economics of flying fuel-driven engines means airlines are using larger aircraft to fly larger numbers of passengers between larger population centres in order to increase narrow profit margins, says Ganzarski. As a result, many small towns in the United States, Australia and Europe have “lost their connectivity”.
Their fortunes are dwindling along with people’s ability to easily do business between centres, and their ability to quickly deliver products to market, or distribute products from regional warehouses.
“Connectivity brings prosperity,” says Ganzarski. “No-one wants to travel six hours to get from one town to another, so no-one moves there. Packages and deliveries don’t move, so commerce doesn’t grow. Places can’t sell their goods or can’t receive goods because the 4.5 to 6-hour truck drive that happens maybe once a week is prohibitive to commercial operations.”
He envisages providing electric aviation at a cost point 50% to 80% cheaper than equivalent fuel-powered aircraft, enabling new production facilities or businesses in country towns to set up and flourish. “If you could have aircraft providing services that take 20, 40, 60 minutes and do it with zero emissions at a really low cost, suddenly you’re really connecting these communities.”
The magni series of electric engines will be developed to power both aircraft designed for electric flight, and for retrofitting to the Caravans and King Airs of the world’s existing fleet.
Along with European company Siemens, magniX is one of only two companies to have developed an engine that rotates at the same speed as an aircraft propeller. This synchronicity, allows its design to jettison the requirement for, and the weight of, a gearbox. The engine itself weighs less than two-thirds of its equivalent combustion engine.
Even so, the weight of the batteries needed to power conventional aircraft with electricity will initially be between 1 and 1.5 tonnes — one of the factors that led MagniX to design for plug-in recharging of batteries at airports, rather than swapping in fresh batteries at each destination. The other deciding factor was the danger associated with disconnecting and reconnecting high-voltage batteries at each turnaround.
Regional airports tap PV
Australian airports such as Brisbane, Adelaide, Karratha, Darwin, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek are already drawing on or planning installation of solar PV to reduce running costs. Sydney Airport Corporation this month signed an eight-year power purchase agreement to receive 75% of its energy needs from Sapphire and Crudine Ridge wind farms in New South Wales. The potential exists, at country and city airports, to renewably power electric flight.
As the development of battery technology accelerates to meet new demand for the more energy-dense batteries needed to power the electric aircraft of the near future, they will enable flights over longer distances says Ganzarski.
The current range of a retrofitted battery-powered Cessna Caravan is around 280 kilometres (an aircraft designed for that electric engine would be able to cover more like 925 km in a single hop). But as Ganzarski points out, “If you take that Cessna Caravan for a 100-nautical-mile [185 km] flight, it will use anywhere between $300 and $400 in aviation fuel; but it will use only $12 to $14 worth of electricity during that flight.”
Ganzarski says magniX has received “a phenomenal amount of positive interest” in its electric aviation engines, “because aviation leadership knows that if they really want to make a difference both to their operating costs and to the environment, then electric is the right way to go.”
“The electrification of flight is a really important part of our being able to shift to more low-carbon transport,” says Stocks, who declares magniX’s anticipated mid- 2022 delivery of certified electric engines “a really exciting announcement”.
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