Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens have teamed up to develop the technology needed to create electrically powered aircraft.
In 2020 the companies plan to fly a demonstrator aircraft with one of its existing jet engines replaced by an electric unit.
The engine will use a fan powered by electricity from an on-board generator located in the fuselage.
The companies hope the concept demonstrator – which will also contain batteries, making it a hybrid aircraft – will help perfect the technology that could see “electric jets” flying short-haul routes of about one hour within a generation.
A BAE 146 will be used as a demonstrator for the new technology
Chief Technology Officer at Rolls-Royce,Paul Stein,said: “Aviation is the last frontier of the electrification of transport. It could lead to a step change in the way we fly with greater efficiency and less noise.”
Successfully developing an electric aircraft could reduce fuel consumption by up to 10 percent, predicted Head of Flight Demonstration at Airbus,Mark Cousin, potentially making flights cheaper – if airlines are willing to pass on the savings.
The partners also say that electric jets, which use a gas turbine to generate electricity, which is then routed to propellors located around the aircraft, would also “significantly” reduce the amount of noise.
They expect the technology to be first used in regional aircraft seating about 100 to 150 people, servicing the shortest of short-haul routes such as London and Paris. Ultimately it could be extended to long-haul routes.
Stein said the technology could revolutionise the way air travel is perceived.
“Quieter aircraft could move runways much closer to city centres,” he said. “Flying on electric aircraft could be the norm for travel between cities, even replacing rail – you do not need to lay out railway tracks fanning out from train stations for these aircraft.”
He said he expected such changes to take place in emerging markets rather than developed ones.
Each of the companies involved is spending tens of millions on the research, and the partnership is in talks with the UK Government about help funding the project.
Cousin said that if the talks, which are being held through the Aerospace Technology Institute, were successful it could see much of the research being carried out in the UK.
He added that the UK was well placed to take the lead in the technology, with major companies involved. In the US rival projects involve start-up companies.
Airbus has been investigating electric aircraft for several years and its E-Fan demonstrator has been a regular highlight of airshows, putting on silent aerobatic displays.