Better Battery Materials – Asphalt?

Asphalt, Graphene, and a Lithium Coating

Mike Williams, reporting for Rice University in Houston, Texas, writes, “A touch of asphalt may be the secret to high-capacity lithium metal batteries that charge 10 to 20 times faster than commercial lithium-ion batteries, according to Rice University scientists.”

We’ve written about James Tour and his laboratory before.  He and his students come up with a plethora of new energy ideas and are able to demonstrate some exciting outcomes.  His latest effort mixes asphalt with conductive graphene nanoribbons, and then electrochemically coats the composite with lithium metal to form a battery anode.

Scanning electron microscope images show an anode of asphalt, graphene nanoribbons and lithium at left and the same material without lithium at right. The material was developed at Rice University and shows promise for high-capacity lithium batteries that charge 20 times faster than commercial lithium-ion batteries. Courtesy of the Tour Group

The anode, when combined with a sulfurized-carbon cathode, was used in full batteries for testing.  The results seem a bit incredible, with the ability to charge 20 times faster than commercial lithium-ion batteries.  Being able to “refill” your electric car or airplane in five minutes rather than two hours or more would make electric vehicles practical alternatives to their fossil-fuel-powered cousins.

After 500 charge-discharge cycles, the batteries demonstrated a high-current density of 20 milliamps per square centimeter and a high-power density of 1,322 Watts per kilogram and high-energy density of 943 Watt-hours per kilogram (compared to 250 Watt-hours per kilogram for “conventional” Li-ion cells).  This nearly four-fold increase in energy density would enable longer range or light battery weights for aeronautical applications.

Coulombic efficiency is relatively stable over a range of high discharge rates, but appears to develop fluctuations after the 60th cycle.  Courtesy of the Tour Group

To sweeten this already candied deal, the carbon-lithium combination prevents the formation of dendrites, those tooth-like growths that puncture separators in more conventional lithium cells and cause shorts and even fires.

Icing on an already well-frosted sweet, the new composite is simpler than other approaches, according to Tour.  “While the capacity between the former and this new battery is similar, approaching the theoretical limit of lithium metal, the new asphalt-derived carbon can take up more lithium metal per unit area, and it is much simpler and cheaper to make.  There is no chemical vapor deposition step, no e-beam deposition step and no need to grow nanotubes from graphene, so manufacturing is greatly simplified.”

Simplification of manufacturing, combined with extremely high performance, improved safety, and quick charges, makes this new battery something to watch.

ACS Nano Paper

Tuo WangRodrigo Villegas SalvatierraAlmaz S. JalilovJian Tian, and James M. Tour authored a paper on their accomplishment for the ACS Nano journal.

The abstract sums it all up.  “Li metal has been considered an outstanding candidate for anode materials in Li-ion batteries (LIBs) due to its exceedingly high specific capacity and extremely low electrochemical potential, but addressing the problem of Li dendrite formation has remained a challenge for its practical rechargeable applications. In this work, we used a porous carbon material made from asphalt (Asp), specifically untreated gilsonite, as an inexpensive host material for Li plating. The ultrahigh surface area of >3000 m2/g (by BET, N2) of the porous carbon ensures that Li was deposited on the surface of the Asp particles, as determined by scanning electron microscopy, to form Asp–Li. Graphene nanoribbons (GNRs) were added to enhance the conductivity of the host material at high current densities, to produce Asp–GNR–Li. Asp–GNR–Li has demonstrated remarkable rate performance from 5 A/gLi (1.3C) to 40 A/gLi (10.4C) with Coulombic efficiencies >96%. Stable cycling was achieved for more than 500 cycles at 5 A/gLi, and the areal capacity reached up to 9.4 mAh/cm2 at a highest discharging/charging rate of 20 mA/cm2 that was 10× faster than that of typical LIBs, suggesting use in ultrafast charging systems. Full batteries were also built combining the Asp–GNR–Li anodes with a sulfurized carbon cathode that possessed both high power density (1322 W/kg) and high energy density (943 Wh/kg).”

Tour’s Astounding Repertoire – Science You Can Dance To

James M. Tour has a wide-ranging set of accomplishments, including over 630 research publications and over 120 patents.   According to Rice University, he “was inducted into the National Academy of Inventors in 2015. Tour was named among “The 50 Most Influential Scientists in the World Today” by in 2014; listed in “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds” by Thomson Reuters in 2014; and recipient of the Trotter Prize in “Information, Complexity and Inference” in 2014; and was the Lady Davis Visiting Professor, Hebrew University, June, 2014. Tour was named “Scientist of the Year” by R&D Magazine, 2013. He was awarded the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching, 2012, Rice University; won the ACS Nano Lectureship Award from the American Chemical Society, 2012; was the Lady Davis Visiting Professor, Hebrew University, June, 2011 and was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2009. Tour was ranked one of the Top 10 chemists in the world over the past decade….”  The list of accomplishments and awards goes on at length.

Nanokids used to help teach nanoscience, technology to K – 12 grades

Not content to guide few lucky graduate students through the intricacies of exploration, he’s expanded his teachings into new areas.  “For pre-college education, Tour developed the NanoKids concept for K-12 education in nanoscale science, and also Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero science packages for elementary and middle school education: SciRave( which later expanded to a Stemscopes-based SciRave. The SciRave program has risen to be the #1 most widely adopted program in Texas to complement science instruction, and it is currently used by over 450 school districts and 40,000 teachers with over 1 million student downloads.”

Let’s just hope his batteries become commercialized soon.


Partnering with easyJet, a UK-based budget airline, to build an electric airliner capable of carrying 150 passengers on sub-two-hour flights, Wright Aero will substitute electrons for liquid fuel on one-fifth of EasyJet’s trips.  Finding a ready collaborator in easyJet’s Carolyn McCall, Engler has a partner who is already making inroads into making jet flight cleaner.  “’We can envisage a future without jet fuel and we are excited to be part of it. It is now more a matter of when not if a short haul electric plane will fly,’ said EasyJet CEO McCall,” in an interview with The Guardian.

Wright Electric’s airplane for easyJet will cover one-fifth of the airline’s short-range flights

Engler added, in his latest Wright Weport:

“First, the context is on Wednesday easyJet announced a partnership with us during their Innovation Day….  We could not be more excited!

Skilled team assembled Wright Electric’s model in time for Innovation Day unveiling

“(Note: if you have a second, would you mind posting the article on facebook/twitter? We’re hoping it reaches as many battery researchers’ eyes as possible! Thank you in advance!)

“Second, our main takeaway is easyJet is committed to green. In addition to the partnership with us, they announced:

  1. “Electric aircraft tugs for their fleet of 60 planes at Gatwick airport.
  2. “A partnership with Safran to trial hydrogen fuel cell tugs.
  3. “An order of 98 A320 neos with 15% fuel savings.”

EasyJet seems to be committed to cleaning up all aspects of its operations.  By going to electric tugs, easyJet benefits from lower operating costs and increased reliability.

easyJet’s use of TPX-100e electric tugs will help overall emissions at Gatwick Airport

The TPX-100-E, an electric towbarless tractor designed for pushback of most commuters, and single-aisle aircrafts up to 100 tons, from SAAB 2000 to BOEING B757 (100 tons max.), uses a “unique AC/DC technology,” and fits all nose landing gears (NLG).

Beyond that, easyJet is seemingly interested in cost-saving technology that also allows cleaner operations.  The airline seems to be succeeding in its efforts, including being able to bring forward Engler’s ambitious development program.  Starting a few years ago with early attempts to electrify a Piper Cherokee, a simple four-seat light aircraft, Engler realized that it was more worthwhile and potentially lucrative to go after a larger market.  Let’s hope that his and Ms. McCall’s approach pays off.  It will mean even cheaper, cleaner short-range flights for all.

easyJet’s distributed electric power system

And all that technology will come back in future EAA homebuilt aviation projects.  For many of us, that might be the greatest benefit.  We’ll see those electric Cherokees and Cessnas sooner than we might believe.  After all, NASA is working with similar programs on its X-57 Maxwell program and David Ullman is crafting a two-seat distributed thrust machine in his home hangar.


Boeing made two announcements this week that show the maker of large aircraft willing to investigate niche markets at smaller scales and with more personal service for flyers.  Both involve electric power and the potential for automated flight.

Zunum To Fly by 2020, In Service by 2022

Zunum Aero, the Boeing- and Jet Blue-backed regional airliner startup, will begin development of a 10-to-12 passenger airplane, hybrid powered with large electric ducted fans at the rear of the fuselage.  Having flown on earlier examples of 10-passenger “airliners,” your editor welcomes this smaller package.  Ford Trimotors and DeHavilland Dragons carried passengers in the 1930s, with simple accommodations and window seats for all.  The single-aisle made boarding and deplaning easy and quick, and the low altitudes and slow speeds gave a great sense of engagement with the passing scene.

Zunum sees a broad range of smaller airfields as ideal for its short-haul machines

Zunum provides a modern adaptation of this personalized service and opens many otherwise underused airports for new use.  It brings back the regional airport as a hub for smaller cities and enables simpler, more efficient travel.  Zunum sees a rare opportunity for its airplanes to reinvigorate such markets.  “Our stock of 13,500 airports is the largest in the world, yet just 140 of the largest hubs carry over 97% of air traffic. This has left many of us with long drives to catch a flight, while on shorter trips we skip air travel altogether. Communities without good air service also struggle to attract investment and create jobs.”

Zunum sees its products reducing emissions.  Short-haul flights account for 40 percent of all aviation emissions, according to Zunum.  They see their electric aircraft eliminating those “within twenty years.”  Beginning with hybrid systems, the aircraft will become more fully battery powered as advanced energy storage devices become available. Whether hybrid or fully electric, Zunum craft will have quickly swapped battery packs in their clean wings.

Zunum’s 10-12 seat regional airliner will initially be a hybrid, with increasing reliance on batteries as technology improves.  Operating cost of 8 cents per seat mile should make it highly attractive to operators

The system will drive high-efficiency, low-pressure fans, which “sport variable pitch for strong off-cruise performance, and feature regenerative braking to replace noisy spoilers. Meanwhile, 40% shorter runway requirements, 75% lower community noise, and highly responsive power without altitude lapse are key to door-to-door times.”

Quiet electric fans will have variable pitch rotors to allow “40 percent lower runway requirements, 75-percent lower community noise,” and “highly responsive power without altitude lapse.”

Development of this range of aircraft, which will eventually comprise 10-through-50-passenger machines, will put Boeing and its subsidiary in a largely uncontested market niche, serving 100 to 700-mile routes at 340-mile-per-hour cruising speeds.  The other Boeing niche market is more widely served, with Airbus and a variety of European and Chinese competitors vying for market share.

Acquiring a Specialist in Autonomous Flight, Innovation

In a joint press release, Aurora Flight Sciences and Boeing announced their hopes for a new melding of each company’s strengths.

“Manassas, VA, October 5, 2017 – Boeing [NYSE: BA] plans to acquire Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation, a world-class innovator, developer and manufacturer of advanced aerospace platforms under an agreement signed by the companies. Aurora specializes in autonomous systems technologies to enable advanced robotic aircraft for future aerospace applications and vehicles. ‘The combined strength and innovation of our teams will advance the development of autonomy for our commercial and military systems,’ said Greg Hyslop, chief technology officer and senior vice president of Boeing Engineering, Test & Technology. ‘Together, these talented teams will open new markets with transformational technologies.’”

Aurora has been developing an autonomous flight vehicle that would fulfill Uber’s plans for a flight-sharing service that would emulate the ride-sharing programs Uber provides for ground-bound commuters.  Their system, already demonstrated in quarter-scale model form, allows vertical takeoffs and landings, with the transition to horizontal flight aided by high-aspect-ratio wings to reduce energy consumption and allow swifter flight.  Aurora hopes to demonstrate full-scale flight in 2020, joining eHang and Volocopter in Dubai for Uber flights.

Opportunities abound in Aviation for exploring new ways to traverse the lower heavens.  Boeing is testing at least two of these and may help to bring about a revolution in short-range flight.


David Ullman: Flying on Multiple Tiny Motors

David Ullman, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University, predicted electric flight’s future in articles in 2009* and 2010**.  His predictions have come (mostly) true and David is working to fulfill the rest.  His background in mechanical and aeronautical engineering provides credibility for his prognostications, and he’s taking practical steps to take electric aviation to a next, very creative level.

While Uber’s Elevate Summit in Dallas earlier this year focused on big-money players in the vertical aviation world, David and co-creator Vincent H. Homer promoted their paper, “The IDEAL for Near-VTOL Aircraft.”  IDEAL represents “Integrated Distributed Electric – Augmented Lift” flight, using “thrust from distributed electric propulsion to improve the lift and drag performance of the aircraft during takeoff, cruise and landing.”  As their paper explains, VTOL flight requires power equal to 1.25 times the weight of the aircraft to ensure secure takeoffs and landings.  An IDEAL aircraft would require thrust equaling about one-third of the STOL craft’s weight to provide excellent performance.

It doesn’t look much like a four-seat Jabiru, but that’s the donor plane for the DW-1 – the realization of an IDEAL

Because so little relative power is necessary, the IDEAL aircraft would have greater range “using current batteries,” or would be able to reduce battery weight for the same range as that of a comparable VTOL craft.

The Ullman wind tunnel in his Independence, Oregon Hangar/garage.

Even better, though, the design can provide management of the lift distribution on the wing, and the 16 to 20 motors David proposes would provide a high level of reliability.  When he first saw the design concept last year, your editor was a bit skeptical, but having seen David’s large wind tunnel and well-defined testing techniques, that outlook has been replaced by the attitude that David and Vincent are on to something with great promise.

Similar but Different

Similar to NASA’s X-57 Maxwell, the DW-1 (real-world version of IDEAL) is a distributed thrust machine, with 16-to-20 small electric ducted fans spread across the front of the wing.  The X-57 has tractor (forward-facing) propellers, though, pushing air over the top and bottom surfaces of the wing.  DW-1’s propellers are housed in ducted fans blowing only over the top of the wing.

Electric ducted fans blow air over only the top of DW-1’s wing

According to the presentation on the DW-1, the redesigned wing has only 60 square feet compared to the original’s 100.5, and the aspect ratio goes from 9.8 to 15.  That would reduce the overall chord of the wing to about two feet, requiring a good low-Reynolds number airfoil, something accommodated by the Riblett 37 A6 18 used in initial wind-tunnel tests.

Maxwell visits future DW-1. Mary Maxwell takes in David Ullman’s explanation .about future for rebuilt Jabiru: red and green beard helped David direct traffic at fly-in that day


The Jabiru, which David is resuscitating from a wreck, has its six-cylinder Jabiru 3,300 cc engine in place for initial flight testing, which should take place soon.  After that, the new wing and distributed power system will take the old wing’s place, and the Jabiru will give way to a newly streamlined nose, which will also make the fuselage a lifting body.

16 or 20 Tiny Ducted Fans

David has selected an electric ducted fan that in the current design, will populate 16 places across the leading edge of the wing.  Each 50-millimeter (almost two-inch) diameter fan can produce 4.2 horsepower and nine pounds of thrust – 67.2 horsepower and 144 pounds of thrust total.   David notes that Airbus’s E-Fan’s two EDFs produced 86 horsepower peak.  At $375 each, the little powerhouses total $6,000 and weigh only 21 pounds total (including 11 pounds of 10 AWG wire).  Admit that it’s a bit noteworthy that the wiring weighs more than the motors.

16 of this two-inch diameter EDFs can produce 144 pounds of thrust

Besides the extremely redundant power system, the blowing adds to the lift coefficient for the wing.  A plain wing without flaps can take off at 51knots (58.65 mph), and the same wing with 10 degrees of flaps can leave the ground at 44 knots (50.6 mph).  30 degrees of split leading-edge flaps yields a 37 knot (42.55 mph) lift off, but David’s ducted wing drops that to 24 knots (27.6 mph) – ultralight speed.

Predicting Again

A great deal will depend on available batteries.  David keeps an optimistic outlook about that, the chart below detailing current realities and projected, realistic assessments of the near future.  He sees batteries as evolving rapidly, with an annual rate of improvement in energy density, for instance, of seven to eight percent.  Costs are dropping, making future costs even more of an incentive to go electric.  DW-1’s 16 motors cost $6,000, but compare that to a $17,000 Rotax 912, which weighs 171 pounds and consumes about $25 per hour in gasoline.

We’ll be following up on the DW-1.  David’s history as a designer, teacher, and President of EAA Chapter 292 shows that he can organize and carry out significant programs.  His progress on what last year was a basket-case Jabiru shows his practical capabilities.  This could be a contender at STOL events in the near future.

Book Review:  What Will Your Grandchildren See When They Look Up?

Amazon explains a book edited by David Ullman this way.

“This book explores the future of aviation. It was developed by students in a class titled “The History of Aviation 1800-2200” offered through the Honors College at Oregon State University. The course reviewed the history of atmospheric flight and, in parallel worked with the students to generate a vision of the future, specifically at a time when their grandchildren become aware of objects in the sky – about 2050. The students make predictions about the future of drones, autonomous flight, supersonic passenger flight, the use of new materials and other topics driving the evolution of aviation in the twenty-first century.”

Your editor read the first edition, and aside from a few quibbles (former English teacher, you know) found the work of the young people involved to be a great reflection on David’s teaching skills.  The second edition, quibble-free, is available for a modest price and is well worth the time of any forward-looking reader.

*“Hear the Hum? An electric airplane may be coming soon to an airport near you.” KITPLANES, November 2009, pp 15-19.

**“The Electric Powered Aircraft: Technical Challenges“, EAA Experimenter, May 2010.


GoFly and Win Big Prizes

“Have You Ever Dreamed of Flying?” Boeing asks, and answers its own question: “We’re making that dream a reality.”  Well, actually, the person entering HeroX and Boeing’s GoFly competition will make their own dream a reality, and possibly win substantial sums in the process.

Abundance Insider, an Internet outreach from Peter Diamandis, himself well-acquainted with prize competitions, gives an excellent short rundown on the competition.

The inspiration that started Peter Diamandis cooking up further prizes: Celebrating their success (front left): X Prize sponsors Anousheh and Amir Ansari, X Prize chairman Peter Diamandis, investor Paul Allen, Tier One CEO Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne Pilot Brian Binnie, and Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson.

“What it is: HeroX recently announced the GoFly Prize, sponsored by Boeing — a $2 million challenge to create a personal flying machine that is useful, safe and thrilling (italics by the editor). The goal is to foster the development of a safe, quiet, ultra-compact, near-VTOL personal flying device capable of flying 20 miles while carrying a single person.

“Why it’s important: Each week, we feature examples of converging exponential technologies that are helping us go from science fiction to science fact. Boeing’s sponsorship of this unique incentive competition reflects how its leadership is thinking about the future of transportation — especially considering its simultaneous exploration of pilotless planes and Mars travel.”

What is HeroX?

Following Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne winning the $10 million Ansari XPrize in 2004, XPrize founder Peter Diamandis envisioned, “A platform that would make the power of incentive challenges available to anyone. The result was the spin-off of HeroX in 2013.”

HeroX, co-founded by Diamandis, challenge designer Emily Fowler and entrepreneur Christian Cotichini is a means to democratize the innovation model of XPRIZE.  The organization, partnered with City Light Capital, “Exists to enable anyone, anywhere in the world, to create a challenge that addresses any problem or opportunity, build a community around that challenge and activate the circumstances that can lead to a breakthrough innovation.”

The Competition

Beyond flying a person 20 miles, Boeing expands, “What we are seeking is an ‘everyone’ personal flying device, capable of being flown by ANYONE, ANYWHERE. It should be a device for ALL: young and old, city-dweller and country-dweller, expert and novice.”  This implies a highly-automated flying machine, and the ultra-compactness comes from the need to figuratively fly oneself out of and back into a barrel.

Virtual cylindrical envelope is 30 feet in diameter, 12 feet high. Pilot must take off and land within cylinder.  Microphones to measure craft’s sound level are placed 60 feet from envelope center

Obviously, a high degree of precise navigational ability is required to remain within the 30-feet diameter, 12-feet high virtual barrel envelope during departure and arrival.  Microphones arranged 50 feet from envelope center, will record the noise level of the machine.

Pylons are spaced half-nautical-mile apart. Pilot must speed around course for six miles at altitude above ground effect

The pilot will be required to fly around a six-nautical-mile course defined by pylons approximately half a nautical mile apart.  Rules state, “The speed run may be flown at any safe altitude out of ground effect (defined as at least 1 x the size measurement at all times). There is no guarantee that the entire course will be obstacle-free at altitudes below 50’ AGL.”

First Things First

To drill down through the multiple layers that define this competition, those intent on entering should review the technical rules and then make sure nothing in the GoFly Prize Competitor Agreement places too great an impediment in their way.  Entrants have until April 4, 2018 to file their registration papers, and until April 18, 2018 to submit a written report and preliminary drawing.

Winners of the first round will be notified by May 29, 2018 and will proceed to build the actual flight vehicle.  They have until December 6, 2018 to officially register for Phase II, and until February 8, 2019 to submit the physical creation and documentation for their entry.  GoFly will issue invitations to participate in the fly-off on March 28.  Phase III will consist of a pre-flight evaluation in September 2019, and the actual fly-off in October.

GoFly will award four major prizes for the winners:

  • One $1,000,000 Grand Prize awarded for the best overall fly-off score.
  • One $250,000 prize for the quietest compliant entry.
  • One $250,000 prize for the smallest compliant entry.
  • One $100,000 prize awarded for disruptive advancement of the state of the art.

Note that size and quietness are two major goals for this contest.  The prize for “disruptive advancement” is most intriguing.

Having looked at the paperwork involved, your editor cautions potential entrants to read everything several times.  Things are tightly defined and probably not subject to being appealed if the entrant doesn’t follow the rules.

Will the future of personal flight look like this?

Or this?

Or this? The builder claims to have constructed it in three weeks and to have flown it “hundreds of times.”

If you have a jet-pack, single-person drone, or flying carpet on your drawing board or in your garage, here is an opportunity to gain funding and recognition for your efforts.  The next two years should include an exciting series of revelations.


A Range Extender You Can Ride Home

Range extenders make any airplane to which they are attached a hybrid aircraft, with an engine-driven generator charging batteries or driving one or more electric motors that provide thrust.  Speaking today at the 7th EASN International Conference on Innovation in European Aeronautics Research, Richard Glassock, a Fellow at the Institute of Aerospace Technology at the University of Nottingham, gave the range extender a completely new mission.

His innovation comes in two versions, the RExLite and RExMoto.  RExLite is a simple generator drive that mounts under the aircraft.  RExMoto looks similar – a streamlined pod under the aircraft – but can be converted to a motorcycle when on the ground.  Both “use conventionally-fueled combustion-engine-driven electrical generators to provide energy at peak efficiency and minimum emissions, effectively converting the All-Electric to a Hybrid Electric aircraft.”

RExLite Range Extender

RExLite manages to contain a 40 kilowatt (53.6 hp.) engine-generator in the 60 kilogram (132 pound – depending on fuel load) pod.  According to Richard’s Conference paper, “This will allow the range and endurance for small 2-seat all-electric aircraft to become comparable to conventional combustion engine types in cross-country range with a single person onboard. For local area and circuit flying of 2-seat all-electric types with a passenger onboard, the extra endurance and redundancy will allow comparable flight times without anxiety about battery state of charge and recharging considerations.”  For larger aircraft or even greater range, two pods could be mounted, possibly making the airplane look like a WWII fighter on a long-range escort mission.

Light Sport Aircraft with RExLite range extended attached.  Compact size and low mass could allow mounting more than one pod

RExMoto – Extending Range to That Last Mile

Richard notes that cross-country flights can often end at an inconvenient location with limited options for getting to the nearest restaurant or motel.  The recent eclipse, for instance, lured hundreds of private pilots to the Madras, Oregon Municipal Airport, three miles northwest of the small town’s center.  With limited taxi service and no rental cars on the field, this would be a hot, dusty hike on a summer day.  The utility of aircraft is severely compromised by such circumstances.

(Forgive the annoying soundtrack on the video.  It seems to be on every YouTube version of the event.)

Richard’s innovative solution combines the range extender with a cleverly folded motorcycle.  The 50 kW (67 hp.) engine-generator and 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of fuel are contained in a range extender pod/motorcycle “with an all-up weight not more than approximately 125kg (275 pounds).  The low weight shows enormous attention to detail, with a “novel in-wheel power turbine and rim-drive motor generator” combining functions and reducing overall mass.  Part of this technology comes from the University’s research on electric taxiing for jet airliners.

LSA with RExMoto extending range, allowing ground travel when aerial destination is reached

A motorcycle, especially one that can be detached from one’s electric airplane and used for practical operation, could be a great marketing tool for future flyers.

With 50 kW, this 275-pound motorcycle will more than keep up with traffic.

Richard’s presentation includes this insight into his approach to solving some problems that still face those attempting to devise sky taxis and make “door-to-door” travel possible.  “The packaging of the Range Extender as a fully independent and mobile transport system opens the way for electric aircraft transport utility which is currently severely restricted by short range and endurance. Ongoing impediments to utilization of traditional powered conventional light aircraft as a ‘door to door’ transport solution remains a key problem. Recent attention in the domain of ‘aerial taxi’ concepts and long standing attempts at ‘flying car’ solutions indicate that both these approaches remain attractive yet problematic from legacy regulatory and air-worthiness criterion.  The fundamental problems of intermodal access within regulatory constraints can be solved by closely bounding each unit’s function while minimizing redundant features.”

Features of Richard Glassock’s RExMoto. Your editor is not quite sure of the “Jetpipe” Fluid Transfer Unit’s (FTU) function

He reports that, “The concept had an extremely positive reaction from the audience, including some of the most prominent people from the electric aviation industry and academic world.  [The project is] getting some traction now, and all leading to the likelihood of getting a serious project and demonstrator made.”

The University reports on reactions from Richard’s compatriots.

“Professor Herve Morvan, Director of IAT said: ‘We are now living through exciting times in the aerospace industry, probably the most exciting times in two generations, as electrification offers a radical departure in propulsion and aircraft design, and we are delighted to contribute and demonstrate the research being done here. Richard’s project on Range Extenders is one example of the preliminary work we are carrying out in this area.

“’This builds on the University’s commitment to six Beacons of Excellence which were set out earlier this year as well as IAT’s agenda on advanced propulsion. The Propulsion Futures beacon focuses on accelerating the IAT aircraft propulsion agenda and aims to develop more electric technology for medium- to long-haul flights. This is to help tackle performance, environmental and noise challenges, encapsulated in the ACARE Flightpath 2050 targets, in collaboration with leading stakeholders from government and industry.’”  ACARE, the Advisory Council for Aviation Research and Innovation in Europe, has five targets for future aircraft.  Most relevant to Richard’s project, “In 2050 technologies and procedures available allow a 75% reduction in CO2 emissions per passenger kilometer and a 90% reduction in NOx emissions.  The perceived noise emission of flying aircraft is reduced by 65%.  These are relative to the capabilities of typical new aircraft in 2000.”

The University of Nottingham’s IAT is headed by Director Herve Moran and Deputy Director Michael Galea.  Their research extends beyond range extenders into all realms of green aviation. We will look forward to their next innovations.


Scientists may have come up with a process to wrap hydrogen-trapping magnesium with an atom-thick layer of graphene, setting up a scenario to store hydrogen in a weight-saving way.

Hydrogen seems to be a perfect fuel, but like all perfect things, an unattainable one.  Its lightness and smallness make it hard to contain, and pressurization required to store it adds weight to its containers.  Flying since 2009, the Lange Antares DLR-H2 has been a test bed for hydrogen-fueled flight.  The DLR (Germany’s NASA) explains, “The developers selected a new, larger pressure vessel that, at 350 bar (5,076 pounds per square inch), now holds five kilograms of hydrogen to replace the previous tank in the external pod on the starboard wing, which provided a capacity of just two kilograms.”

Lange Antares H2 in flight. Substantial pod on right wing holds only five kilograms of hydrogen – still sufficient for long-range flights

It takes a substantial container and high pressure to contain hydrogen as currently used in transportation.  Reducing or eliminating that equipment would make H2 a more viable power source for aviation.  That is not to say some type of containment vessel would still not be necessary, but it could be substantially lighter than current systems.

Researchers at the Molecular Foundry and the Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), and the Department of Physics, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan, managed to enclose hydrogen in magnesium nanoparticle “encapsulated in reduced graphene oxide.”


A powdery mixture of graphene-wrapped magnesium nanocrystals, produced at Berkeley Lab, is stable in air. The mixture’s energy properties show promise for use in hydrogen fuel cells. (Eun Seon Cho/Berkeley Lab)

Berkeley reports, “The study, led by Berkeley Lab researchers, drew upon a range of Lab expertise and capabilities to synthesize and coat the magnesium crystals, which measure only 3-4 nanometers (billionths of a meter) across; study their nanoscale chemical composition with X-rays; and develop computer simulations and supporting theories to better understand how the crystals and their carbon coating function together.”

Thin sheets of graphene oxide (red sheets) have natural, atomic-scale defects that allow hydrogen gas molecules to pass through while blocking larger molecules such as oxygen (O2) and water (H2O). Berkeley Lab researchers encapsulated nanoscale magnesium crystals (yellow) with graphene oxide sheets to produce a new formula for metal hydride fuel cells. (Jeong Yun Kim)

Normal reactivity of hydrogen and magnesium causes them to react to the oxygen, water vapor and carbon dioxide in their environment.  Wrapping the magnesium/hydrogen combination in graphene to form an atomically thin layer of oxidation of the crystals during their preparation.  But surprisingly, this oxide layer doesn’t seem to degrade the material’s performance.

Another unexpected finding, that the wrapped nanocrystals can “take up” hydrogen quickly, is an important factor in refueling.  Researchers also found that the core material can absorb “hydrogen gas at a much higher density than possible in a compressed hydrogen gas fuel tank at the same pressures.”

A new study explains how an ultrathin oxide layer (oxygen atoms shown in red) coating graphene-wrapped magnesium nanoparticles (gold) still allows in hydrogen atoms (blue) for hydrogen storage applications. Credit: Berkeley Lab

The team’s paper, “Atomically Thin Interfacial Suboxide Key to Hydrogen Storage Performance Enhancements of Magnesium Nanoparticles Encapsulated in Reduced Graphene Oxide,” appears in the August 1 journal Nano Letters.


In June, Dubai’s Road and Transit Authority (RTA) announced its plans to test fly Volocopter’s 200 over the country by the last quarter of this year.  The government and Volocopter have succeeded in meeting that timeline, with demonstrations this week of Volocopter’s quiet ability to fly autonomously (although without passengers so far).  Aerial transit will be a small part of a much broader scheme, the government intent on providing excellent public transportation, as shown in this well-produced video.

To ensure meeting Dubai’s ambitious goal, Volocopter’s designers tested the machine thoroughly in German skies.  Note the Grob Strato 2C by one of the hangars, the twin-engined airplane in which Einar Enevoldson, founder of the Perlan Project, set the still extant world altitude record for propeller-driven airplanes in 1995 – 60.897 feet.

With fresh infusions of 25 million euros from Daimler AG and “serial entrepreneur” Lukasz Gadowski, Volocopter has been able to achieve this early trial as a sky taxi.  Both Volocopter (rebranded as Autonomous Air Taxi by the Dubai government) and eHang are flying their multi-rotor craft in Dubai, although the AAT is being shown publicly at this time.

A press release from the government stresses the importance of this test.  “HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, attended the maiden concept flight of the Autonomous Air Taxi (AAT), a vehicle that will be used for the world’s first self-flying taxi service set to be introduced by Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA).”

The Crown Prince, along with other dignitaries, attended the test flight, held near the Jumeirah Beach Park.  Sheikh Hamdan explained the relevance to Dubai’s future plans.   “After the remarkable success of the first driverless metro in the region, we are glad to witness today the test flight of the Autonomous Air Taxi.  This is another testament to our commitment to driving positive change. We are constantly exploring opportunities to serve the community and advance the prosperity and happiness of society.”

HE Mattar Al Tayer, Director-General and Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors of the RTA assured those present of the safety factors involved.: “The Autonomous Air Taxi has a variety of unique features that include top security and safety standards, and multiple redundancies in all critical components such as propellers, motors, power source, electronics and flight controls. It is also fitted with optional emergency parachutes, [and] nine independent battery systems.”

He noted the battery quick-charge and plug-in system takes two hours to reach full charge in the prototype version, hinting at an action item for the German developers,” …A time that will be significantly reduced in the production version.”

With the skies filling with the hum of eight or eighteen rotors at a time, Dubai’s citizens will doubtless find cause to look up, and often.


Zeppelins, Blimps and Plimps

How about exploring a softer, gentler form of flight?  Certainly, gas-filled envelopes provide a large way to transport goods and people, but for a variety of reasons, have fallen out of favor in recent years.  Several entrepreneurs are trying to revive an old idea.

Hanging Over Our Heads

One threat hanging over our heads is that of plummeting drones, either having exhausted their short-range batteries or banging up against a tall building.  The infamous video of a drone falling onto a woman in Seattle has been removed from YouTube, probably for legal reasons, but an abundance of others are there for your viewing pleasure.

Maybe More Truth than Poetry

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a prescient bit of poetry in 1835, envisioning future flight into an age where Amazon might be using electric blimps to deliver necessities and frivolities worldwide.

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,

Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heaven fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,

Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;

“Prophecy” from “Locksley Hall”

Tennyson included the elimination of armed combat and the reign of “universal law” within his prophecy, but one out of two isn’t all that bad.  Today, we see several contenders to bring blimps and even Zeppelins back.

The Plimp

Egan Airships, a Seattle-based company, has created the Plimp,   The twin brother founders have Tennyson-like aspirations for their craft.  “Imagine the lift of a plane with the control of a helicopter and the buoyancy of a blimp, and you have the vision of our PLIMP Airship. A patented plane-blimp hybrid, the PLIMP Airship features dynamic wings―enabling it to hover, dip, ascend, bank, or spin―while effectively and uniquely supporting applications like advertising.”

With no fear of their hybrid plummeting from the skies, the brothers see a big role for Plimp in advertising, being able to hover over crowds with capabilities, “Superior to Plane or Blimp type engagement[s].”  They see other uses such as pipeline inspections, agriculture and wildlife monitoring, surveying and mapping and even military deployment.

The 28-foot long, seven-foot in diameter, 55 pound maximum weight ship can stay aloft an hour on its lithium-ion batteries which power twin electric motors.  It can carry a maximum payload of five pounds up to 20 miles at a cruising speed of 30 mph.  Its top speed is 40 mph.  Stopping the motors will cause it to drop its speed to nine mph and descend gently.  Plimp can take off and land vertically, and like a helicopter, fly forward, backward, and hover.

James and Joel see Plimp as the first significant new type of aerial vehicle since the helicopter.  Here the lawyer/architect team explain the pluses of the Plimp.

Others are attempting to at least revive the lighter-than-air concept, with varying approaches.

Amazon and Walmart Dogfight for Aerial Supremacy

Amazon sees a possible future in carrying its own costly bales under a giant gas bag, and Walmart, ever ready to pull off a competitive coup, has filed its own patent for a large airship to carry its goods to market.

Walmart’s patent drawing for its flying delivery vehicle, noting details of its construction and operation

Engadget reports, “The concept isn’t completely new, of course (Amazon filed for a similar patent in 2016) but Walmart goes into exacting detail. Blimps would fly at altitudes up to 1,000 feet and talk to a remote scheduling system that indicates when drones should fetch packages from inside the blimp and head to their destinations.”  Engadget notes the firms’ contentious rivalry to dominate Internet sales, further explaining that since Amazon is experimenting with drone delivery, “Walmart might not have much choice but to deploy blimps if it wants to keep up. In short: the skies are about to get very crowded.”

Amazon actually speaks of having a growing empire, a bit of grandiosity that would include everything from their current Prime delivery services to blimps supplying food and souvenirs to attendees at large outdoor event.  The company sees itself expanding into building wind turbine farms in Texas and brick-and-mortar stores in cities throughout the U. S., all supplied, apparently by an airborne flotilla of airships and drones.

Sergey Brin’s Humanitarian Airship

Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google along with Larry Page, has a project in Moffett Field’s Hangar Number Two.  It’s big, potentially the length of two football fields, and likely to test the limits of even Brin’s disposable income.  Able to carry up to 500 tons, the Zeppelin-like airship is being kept under wraps for now.  Apparently, it was planned to use hydrogen gas for lift, but the FAA prohibits the use of flammable gases in such vehicles – doubtless a callback to the Hindenberg’s unhappy demise.

Rumors float around like mini-thought-airships concerning the machine and its uses.  The Guardian reports, “Brin wants the gargantuan airship, funded personally by the billionaire, to be able to deliver supplies and food on humanitarian missions to remote locations. However, it will also serve as a luxurious intercontinental “air yacht” for Brin’s friends and family. One source put the project’s price tag at $100m to $150m.”

Alan Weston, former director of programs at NASA Ames, is directing this project for Brin.  Taking a more defined view, he explained to Bloomberg News the efficiency he sees in a very large airship.  “New airship technologies have the promise to reduce the cost of moving things per ton-mile by up to an order of magnitude.  It depends on the size of the airship. A larger airship can reduce costs a lot more than a smaller ship, but there’s design of a class of vehicles that can lift up to 500 tons that could be actually more fuel-efficient than even a truck.”

Perhaps Brin will include a hydrogen (safely contained) or battery-powered system to propel the airship on its journeys.  Little has been revealed and we’ll probably only know for sure when the new-age Zeppelin makes its appearance over the Bay Area.

In the meantime, plenty of people are exploring the new possibilities of lighter-than-air drones and transport machines.


On August 30. Pipistrel inaugurated the first electric charging station to fully warrant the name, charging one of their own Alpha Electro trainers.  The project was co-financed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport and the European Union from the European Social Fund.  Led by Pipistrel, the LECAD Laboratory, and the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, mentors and students developed and constructed a fully-functioning station.

Pipistrel charging station, a world first with all the amenities of a true charging station, “refuels” first customer, a Pipistrel Alpha Electro Trainer

Technical characteristics of the charging station: 
– capable of charging two electric aircraft at the same time
– current strength: 2 x 20 kW
– charge speed: one hour to fully charge Alpha Electro
– operating voltage 3f 400V AC
– WiFi connection to the network

As Pipistrel explains, “The goal of the project was the production and installation of a (public) charging station for electric airplanes, since in the filling of electric aircraft, in practice, the need for stationary charging has been shown.”

The team that developed this very finished looking station, combining their skills in science, electronics and the arts

Mentors and students from LECAD Laboratory, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in Ljubljana, Slovenia, power with their stationary charging station

Some Background

Pipistrel has been a leader in electrified aircraft, starting with the Taurus Electro G2, which went into serial production in early 2011.  A resourceful Tine Tomazic, Pipistrel’s R&D director, hooked two of the G2s together with a new central wing to make the Green Flight Challenge winning G4 in 2011.  That airplane and the second place e-Genius from Stuttgart University both received electricity from a specially-installed “charging station” fed by electricity from a nearby geothermal generating plant.  Note that “charging station” is in quotes.

Smugness Goes Before an Apology

 After receiving the press release from Taja Boscarol about their charging station, your editor felt compelled to leave all diplomacy and tact in the lurch, and instead send this smug and totally tactless message to Pipistel.

“The CAFE Foundation installed the first charging station for electric airplanes as part of the Green Flight Challenge in 2011.  You have installed the first airplane charging station in Europe.  This is still an estimable accomplishment.  Congratulations.


(Might as well be Mud)”

Ms. Boscarol, not responding in kind, schooled your editor with a calm grace and a host of impeccable historical and technical verities.

“However, the situation is as follows:
“At the NASA Challenge of 2011 there were 2 fully electric aircraft: the e-Genius and Pipistrel G4.

Charging station installed at Santa Rosa Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport to support the Green Flight Challenge in 2011

“At the Santa Rosa airport, there was no power supply strong enough to charge both aircraft over the night for the next day’s flight. Because of this, Google sponsored a CHARGING POINT. The difference between a charging point and a charging station is enormous. Charging point is basically a power supply, a socket connected to the grid (or to geo-thermal source in Santa Rosa’s case) which of course must be strong enough to charge two aircraft simultaneously. To use the charging point you still need an external charger, which is designed for each specific consumer’s needs (in this case aircraft). It must have the same charging protocol that the aircraft has, must include all electronic components such as AC/DC converter etc.  Charging point doesn’t have all that. At NASA Challenge at Santa Rosa we both had our own chargers with us and we connected them to the charging point.

“The CHARGING STATION we recently developed and you are speaking about, however, already includes hundreds of elements, a computer, charging protocol, AC/DC converter, communication with owner’s cell phone, WIFI etc. To be more understandable I will give you an example:

If you own a Tesla car, you get with your car a special cable (which includes the AC/DC converter etc.), which you can connect to any charging point anywhere all over the world. But if you go to the original Tesla supercharger, you don’t need this cable but you can connect the car directly to the charging station because all the mentioned equipment is included already in the charging station.

“Not to be too long: our information is correct. We are talking about the first aircraft charging station in the world. The NASA challenge charging point was not a station. It might have been called a station, it even has “station” written on it (see attached photo), but it was just outlets with a geothermal source, strong enough to support 2 aircraft.

“FYI, all our aircraft receive also a charger (included in the basic price) with all the needed equipment to charge from any charging point.  Also without a charging station.”

Your editor notes and acknowledges the good counsel and (we hope) good humor displayed by Ms. Boscarol in her response.  Your editor continues to hope that he will someday find the easy grace and kind intelligence that is said to come with age.  Thank you, Taja, for your kindness.