NASA is working on an electric airplane that can carry up to 9 passengers and cruise at 175 miles per hour. The heart of the innovative design is a unique wing with 14 propellers driven by electric motors. 12 of the propellers are used during takeoff and landing while 2 larger ones move the plane forward during normal flight.
The airplane has been assigned the designation X-57 by the Air Force but is known internally as “Maxwell” in honor of James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th century Scottish physicist who did groundbreaking work in electromagnetism.
NASA Aeronautics researchers will use Maxwell to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
As part of a four year flight demonstrator plan, NASA’s Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology Operations Research (SCEPTOR) project will build the X-57 by modifying an Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft.
An advantage of modifying an existing aircraft is that engineers will be able to compare the performance of the proposed experimental airplane with the original configuration, says Sean Clarke, SCEPTOR co-principal investigator at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.
Tests have shown that distributing power among the multiple motors creates more than double the lift at lower speeds than traditional systems. NASA hopes to demonstrate that such a system will result in as much as a five times reduction in the energy required for a private plane to cruise at 175 mph.
Energy efficiency at cruise altitude using X-57 technology could benefit travelers by reducing flight times and fuel usage. It could reduce overall operational costs for small aircraft by as much as 40%. Typically, to get the best fuel efficiency an airplane has to fly slower than it is capable of. Electric propulsion essentially eliminates the penalty for cruising at higher speeds.
It also eliminates one source of pollution from the skies. Internal combustion engines for general aviation still run on leaded gasoline.
Source: Green Car Congress Image credit: NASA