As Bertrand Piccard is attempting to do a cross Atlantic flight on solar power alone, NASA is developing a 9 seater electric airplane expected to be named ‘X-57’ or ‘Maxwell’ in honor of James Clerk Maxwell, the physicist who is famous for his work in electromagnetism. According to reports, it will have a cruising speed of 175 miles per hour, along with 14 electric motor driven propellers, out of which 12 will work during takeoff and landing. The remaining two larger motors will move the plane forward during flight.
Researchers at NASA are going to use Maxwell’s theories to demonstrate that electric propulsion in planes will be quieter, more efficient and greener than those powered by fossil fuel. They modified an existing Italian designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft, to help them compare performance and efficiency.
Tests show that the distribution of power across multiple motors helps create more than double the lift at lower speeds. This is what NASA is hoping to demonstrate and it is expected that there will be five times less energy use in such a system while cruising at 175 miles per hour. If this works, it can reduce operational costs by as much as 40 percent for smaller aircrafts.
The best efficiency in an airplane is achieved when the plane flies slower than its full capacity. The electric plane is estimated to have a range of 100 miles (or about an hour) of flying time before the batteries run out. This is a challenge for NASA and they believe if battery tech continues to evolve rapidly, as it has in the last decade, there will be more range.
On the other hand, the Solar Impulse 2 which is attempting to cross the Atlantic today has almost an infinite range, as its batteries are charged from the sun. The problem is that it can seat only one person and flies at a much slower speed.
Image Source: NASA