John Langford has been a leading exponent of new directions in aeronautical technology. From his work as project manager with MIT’s human-powered Daedalus project to his executive leadership with Aurora Technologies, he has crafted electric, autonomous, and downright astonishing vehicles. The following video is long, but insightful and exciting. We see Langford in several early scenes.
“John Langford is the founder and CEO of Electra.aero, a startup developing hybrid electric aircraft for regional mobility. He founded Aurora Flight Sciences in 1989 and served as Chairman and CEO through 2019. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and serves as President of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).”
The video gives a small idea of the many innovations he helped create from his start in a “garage shop” in 1989 to his selling Aurora Flight Sciences to Boeing and starting a new venture, Electra.Aero. Aurora grew to over 500 employees in four domestic and one Swiss locations, a remarkable achievement for any business.
He told Aviation Week, “I left Aurora and Boeing in January, and I’ve been working to start a new company focused on hybrid electric for regional mobility. It’s virtual today, in the organizational stage and by the time the pandemic ends I hope we’ll be in a position to take it to the stage of a real in-person company.” Like several others, he is turning from vertical flight to more conventional configurations, but those which promise near-helicopter performance. Somewhat under the radar, much of his new direction can be seen in two white papers by MIT associates.
The first, An Assessment of Electric STOL Aircraft, by Christopher B. Courtin and R. John Hansman, compare eVTOL (electric Vertical Take Off and Landing) and eSTOL (electric Short Take Off and Landing)-type aircraft and considers that, “Compared to VTOL vehicle concepts, STOL aircraft may have improved mission performance (in terms of range, payload, or speed for a given vehicle size) and an easier pathway to certification.”
The second, Flight Test Results of a Subscale Super-STOL Aircraft, by Courtin, Hansman, and Mark Drela (one of the original designers of Daedalus) provides data from tests of a 30-percent scale model of a projected four-seat craft. The highly-flapped, eight motor design showed an ability to take off and land in spaces normally reserved for helicopters or multi-rotors.
MIT’s SuperSTOL design comes from compatriots of John Langford with whom he’ worked for decades. Tip propellers are not seen in flight photographs.
One finding: “With a relatively modest amount of blowing power – a static thrust/weight of 0.45 – the flight tests show that the blown wing SuperSTOL concept can generate high lift coefficients greater than 10 in flight.”
MIT’s SuperSTOL in flight. Note extreme deflection of flaps
Much like Pyka, his aircraft, which could range from four to 35 seats, will take off and land “in a couple of hundred feet,” and allow sharing operational space with eVTOL craft (on which Aurora continues to work). There is little detailed information on the planned machines other than that they will use some form of distributed electric propulsion and like the MIT test machine, extreme high-lift devices.
MIT’s 1/3-scale Super STOL takeoff, showing ability to share rooftops with eVTOLs
Langford sees Swiss company Pilatus as a role model, a niche operation building a range of well-targeted craft for specific uses. Your editor likes to think that an American company can fill equally useful niches in the coming urban air mobility market.
A new aircraft’s first takeoff is usually performed under its own power, but the recent trip by Beta Technologies’ just-revealed Alia eVTOL (electric Vertical Take Off and Landing) aircraft was externally powered. A 30-minute lift across Lake Champlain from Alia’s birthplace in Burlington, Vermont to its test site in Plattsburgh, New York was uneventful, but spectacular nonetheless.
Helicarrier Assists on First Flight
Hauled 100 feet below a Sikorsky S-61N from Quebec-based Helicarrier, the all-white, four-rotor Alia “crossed over the northern end of Burlington. With streets along its route blocked off by police, [it] then flew at a stately pace across the lake, usually just a few hundred feet above the surface of the water,” according to Vertical.com.
Helicarrier, besides sharing a named with a Marvel Comics flying aircraft carrier and command center (fictional), performs real-life heavy lifts on anything up to 10,000 pounds. In the case of the Alia transport, the lift was extra heavy based on the value of the precious cargo. According to the Vertical.com article, “Being forced to activate the emergency release and dump it (“the priceless prototype”) in the lake if something went wrong — something Helicarrier has never had to do — would set the program back at least a year.”
Pilot Aaron Lighter flew the mission, with aptly-named company president Fred Carrier acting as spotter. Lighter explained, “It’s not very often we fly brand-new, experimental, multi-million-dollar projects like this. So, yeah, this is outside our scope a little bit. But at the end of the day it’s a piece of equipment on the end of a long line, and we are very capable of getting it there safely.”
S-61 carrying Beta Alia across Lake Champlain. Photo: Eric Adams
Lightened to just over 3,000 pounds, Alia was half its 6,000-pound (2,720 kilogram) maximum take-off weight.
Lighter and Carrier took pains to ensure that the 50-foot span Alia remained stable in its crossing, and since it has a designed stall speed of 90 knots, to keep the transit speed “well below that at 40 knots.” Most of the trip was flown with Alia 100 feet above ground or lake level, with the intent of accomplishing a quick touchdown in case of trouble.
Rigging involved removing the four hover motors from Alia’s outriggers and setting anchor hooks in their place. The craft was set with a three-degree nose-down attitude to keep it from lifting during the trip. After all local traffic was shut down in affected areas the trip went off “without a hitch.” See the full story on Vertical.com.
When Alia has its unique propellers mounted and undergoes test flights, it will be able to take advantage of Beta’s recharging stations. Designed as a stand-alone system, each station will include a pilot lounge and sleeping accommodations with “en-suite bath and full-size shower to help the pilots recharge between missions.” And who wouldn’t like the Mondrian-style walls in the bathrooms?
The cargo-container-based site feature an on-site maintenance and repair workshop, secure and climate-controlled warehouse units, battery storage areas, solar arrays to help recharge batteries economically, and a backup generator to make the site self-sufficient if the grid cannot supply electricity. This is doubly important because of the primary mission for Beta Technology’s primary backers: the delivery of organs for transplants for United Therapies, and the battlefield logistical support for the U. S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program.
Partners in Progress
Beta explains, “United Therapeutics commissioned this airplane to provide zero-emissions delivery for organ transplants, “and intends to use Beta’s aircraft as an efficient, environmentally friendly distribution system.”
The United States Air Force is now commissioning prototypes for Agility Prime, a non-traditional US Air Force program seeking to accelerate the commercial market for advanced air mobility vehicles.”
Inspired by the Arctic Tern according to company founder Kyle Clark, Alia’s long, tapered wings enabling the bird to make an annual migration of “60,000 to 82,000 [kilometers] (roughly 37,000 to 51,000 miles).” Alia’s overall configuration is graceful, and its cargo hold can contain 200 cubic feet of materiel – equivalent to about two Chevrolet Tahoes. Optionally, it can carry six passengers or some combination of cargo and people. A smaller proof-of-concept vehicle, the Ava, went through considerable testing, and Alia followed with tethered tests before being shipped to it New York base.
Simpler in concept than the Ava testbed which preceded it, we will be happy to see how the five motors, four rotors, and pusher propeller work together to make this lovely design fly.
Cuberg, a startup battery company based in Emeryville, California, is pretty specific about its cell-level battery performance – 369 Watt-hours per kilogram at a discharge rate of C/20. This was verified in testing at the Idaho National Laboratory, with Cuberg cells demonstrating a specific power of 2,000 Watts per kilogram. Cells lasted through “around” 370 cycles with C/2 charging before they dropped to the ability to maintain 80-percent capacity. See a .pdf of the test results here.
C Rate is the charge and discharge rate for a battery. Note the differing duration of a battery’s ability to provide a given amperage
INL tested around 20 of Cuberg’s battery cells, covering multiple cell variants across a spectrum of performance tests. “While the testing all looked good, our announcement addresses the specific metrics that are of most impact to our industry,” Cuberg CEO Richard Wang told eVTOL.com.
Independent testing by certified laboratories enables us to see verifiable numbers, highly important in designing new electric aircraft and converting existing aircraft to electric power. Gasoline and Diesel fuels already have well-established numbers, which makes determining output power and range numbers for aircraft using these fuels an accurate design feature.
Gasoline, with a known energy content of 33.410 kilowatt hours per gallon, easily outdoes the best batteries at this time. Calculating the energy in a kilogram of petrol, we can more easily make comparisons with batteries. If gasoline weighs around 6.3 pounds per gallon (based on formulation and additives), it would contain energy equivalent to about 11,670 kilowatts per kilogram. Thus, it would take about 31.62 kilograms of Cuberg batteries to equal the energy in one kilogram of gasoline.
Cuberg co-founder and CEO Richard Wang thinks the independent validation, “Provides a measure of credibility in an industry that has often been plagued by hype and inflated claims.”
In an interview with eVTOL.com, he explained, “We think for the industry as a whole to move forward effectively, more and more independent testing will be a very positive development and allow our customers to efficiently compare technologies and screen them and assess them for viability.”
The tests, to Wang, show that his batteries are on target to achieving a “sweet spot,” of around 400 kilowatt-hours per kilogram, which he considers “the holy grail” for electric aircraft and particularly eVTOL craft.
Wang notes the “three key parameters” that determine how useful a battery can be in aircraft. First is the energy of the cell per weight. Second is the power of the cell, or how quickly energy can be drawn from the cell – necessary for “intensive vertical take-off.” This is cycle life – how many times users can charge and discharge the cell – something that often determines the operating cost for the electric craft.
Hoping to reach their customer base with cells now, “very, very competitive compared to other technologies,” Cuberg focuses on improving cycle life in particular. Wang anticipates, “Getting to 2C charging 1,000 cycles, along with that 400 Wh/kg. . “The company is also in the process of developing a 20-Ah cell for aviation applications — a size that will balance the installation efficiency of larger cells with thermal safety and certifiability considerations.”
Considerations for Cuberg and Others
At this rate, it should be next to impossible to make a practical electric airplane. Luckily, the relative efficiency of electric motors helps even things a bit. Gasoline engines manage to be about 20 to 35-percent efficient, meaning 65 to 80 percent of the fuel’s potential energy is wasted as heat or flows out the exhaust pipe. Electric motors manage to extract 85 to 97 percent of the energy contained in the battery.
That lowers the difference between gas engines and electric motors to about a 10:1 ratio as far as the energy density of their fuel is concerned. Luckily, electric motors are light for their power, often putting out six or seven horsepower per pound. Traditional four-stroke aircraft engines generally produce one horsepower per two pounds of engine weight. The difference enables the use of more batteries for the same gross weight of the airplane. At some point, the ability to provide long-term energy, short-term power, and longevity in terms of cycle life will enable replacement of fossil-fuel power plants.
Only five years after its founding, Cuberg comes close to equaling the performance of batteries from more established players. Securing $10 million in funding from Boeing’s Horizon X Venture, and various government grants, the firm advances with a Small Business Innovation grant from the Department of Energy. Validation took place as part of the Battery500 program, a DOE-sponsored research consortium, nominally aiming for 500 Wh/kg.
Cuberg does not make its pouch cells in house, but obtains them as a “nearly complete cell,” that “leverages all the efficiencies and quality improvements from the lithium-ion world. The only thing that’s missing is the electrolyte — that’s our secret sauce.” Cuberg injects its proprietary, non-flammable electrolyte into the cells, quality checks them, and then ships them directly to customers. Wang explains, ““For the next couple years, we see this as the most efficient model, because it allows us to scale up very easily and maintain good quality control, and also competitive pricing,”
Cuberg’s lithium metal cells come in pouch form and probably need less encasement because of reduced chance of thermal runaway
The non-flammability is a characteristic much to be desired when cruising over in an urban air mobility machine over city streets. Wang says, “All historic electrolytes with lithium-ion batteries are made of organic solvents that are highly combustible [Our] more stable electrolyte allows it to be much more tolerant to abuse in different kinds of conditions.”
Working on commercialization “very aggressively,” Cuberg has been shipping samples to “top electric aircraft developers around the world. Initial results have been encouraging.”
“1 pilot, 500 pounds of cargo,” reads Airflow’s headline for its electric STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) aircraft. Reaching for the “middle-mile” cargo delivery market, Airflow’s new design promises to be four times faster than trucks, operate at one-third the cost of helicopters or eVTOL (electric Vertical Take Off and Landing) vehicles, and require only 150 feet for takeoffs and landings.
Airflow’s single pilot will have helicopter-like view. Initial power will come from hybrid system
Airflow’s management and engineering team come from previous experience in the eVTOL world, most recently with Airbus’ Vahana program. Headed by Marc Ausman, The team has “over 60 years of aerospace experience,” with companies including Eclipse Aviation, Northrop Grumman, Uber Elevate, Airware, and Scaled Composites.
The team determined their design can carry a pilot and a 500-pound payload using less power than comparable eVTOLs because multirotors carry the full weight of the aircraft at all times, or for some designs, until they are able to transition to full forward flight. This helped form the decision to create an 11-motor, distributed electric power machine.
Airflow’s operations from distribution center to distribution center with final mile delivery by established means
Airflow’s white paper on the design explains a good deal of the design philosophy behind the craft, and gives an insight into the infrastructure that the craft will support. That will look a great deal like the current large air cargo aircraft bringing large shipments to a distribution center, where they are broken down into small loads usually transported by trucks to a local distribution center. From that location, individual packages are delivered the “final mile” to the customer.
The as-yet-unnamed aircraft will carry a single pilot and 500 pounds or 90 cubic feet of low-density cargo up to 250 miles. For comparison, a Chevrolet Tahoe has 94.7 cubic feet of cargo space up to the first-row seats. Airflow’s ten wing-mounted motors and single pusher motor will enable takeoffs in 150 feet, in the same performance parameter as a well-piloted Super Cub.
Airflow’s use rooftop airport with 150-foot rollout and added approach zones
Its use of Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP) will confer the same benefits David Ullman and others hope for their designs. Differential control for the motors should enable better yaw control and enhance safety during the slow-speed departures and descents necessary for short takeoffs and landings. The thrust along the span will augment lift and enhance performance of flaps or other lift optimization devices.
Allowable approach and departure constraints for eVTOL and eSTOL craft
Airflow says its craft will be Part 23 certifiable, an important distinction since the path to certification for Uber-style multi-rotor craft is not so predictable at this time. Software will play an important part in the new design, with an ability to fly in poor weather and a “virtual tailhook” program that enables “safe, repeatable landings on very short runways. It reduces pilot workload and increases safety.” This feature would have been a great help to your editor when he was learning to fly an Aeronca Champion at age 19, and often used much of the runway hopping, skipping and jumping until momentum ran out.
Airflow’s combined rooftop operations would allow eVTOL and eSTOL flights
The 150-foot takeoff and landing capability will even allow rooftop operations, and Airflow’s white paper shows combined usage rooftop airports for both STOL and VTOL operations. One illustration included dozens and even hundreds of plausible site in major American cities.
The company claims one-third the operating cost of helicopters or eVTOL machines, based on their analysis of “main cost drivers.” These include depreciation (52-percent of total operating costs over 10 years), battery replacement costs (25-percent of the total), insurance (12-percent), and $50 per hour for a pilot (a cost that might be eliminated with greater automation).
Airflow has two good bits of news regarding operational costs: “negligible maintenance and electricity costs and the fact that Airflow’s craft and eVTOLs “have a path to significant future cost reductions.” This path includes, according to Airflow:
Increased utilization to 1500 flight hours annually
Better & cheaper batteries
Lower insurance cost
Increased motor and propeller time between overhaul (TBO)
Increased maintenance intervals and a shift from life-limited parts to on-condition (or predictive) replacement.
Slightly lower airframe price.
Airflow says, “Because of their relative simplicity and gentler use of batteries, STOL aircraft have a significantly lower operating cost than VTOL.” This will allow the cost of bringing an eSTOL to market for “about $200M,” compared to the $700M required to bring a VTOL forward.
“Airflow’s mission,” according to the firm, “is to expand the benefits of aviation and bring new capabilities to the industry.” We wish them luck in a highly crowded and competitive market.
Not All That New
NOTE: The image above shows Silas Christofferson launching his Curtiss aircraft from the roof of the Multnomah Hotel in Portland, Oregon. The flight, in 1912, heralds the idea of rooftop airports. The restored hotel is still there, and a replica of the Curtiss D was used to recreate the flight in 1992. The replica’s pilot, Tom Murphy, operates the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) in Hood River, Oregon, where the Curtiss hangs over the gift shop.
Quantum Systems GmbH, located on the Dornierstraße (aptly named after a pioneering German aviation firm) near Munich, makes small eVTOL (electric Vertical Take Off and Landing) vehicles with large missions. Quantum’s Tron and Trinity drones offer two platforms for deliveries of small packages, performance of surveillance and mapping, and providing tactical observation. Last week, the company demonstrated a key benefit of using their Trinity drone to speedily deliver “more than 15 urgent corona (SARS-Cov-2) test samples.” It was a seven-minute “Quantum leap” from a mobile corona test station on the Theresienwiese to the Munich laboratory.
True to press release writing, Quantum adds a bit of drama to the story.
“Gilching, Deutschland, June 4th, 2020. The physician in protective clothes inserts the swab into the tube, asks the older man a few specific questions and marks the note “urgent sample”.
“Urgent samples must be delivered to the laboratory as quickly as possible. This is the case, for example, when a timely test result has a decisive influence on the choice and success of therapeutic measures for a patient. In the event of a pandemic, a few hours may have a major influence on the development of the chain of infection. ‘I am concerned about the individual behind each sample and the well-being of the patient in terms of the quality and speed of the findings,’ says Marc Becker, M.D. ‘In this particular case, however, it is also about reducing risks for the many people involved in the provision of our laboratory services, such as doctors, courier services and assistants.’”
“During a test flight, the autonomously operated Trinity F90+ drone from Quantum-Systems transported 20 sample tubes in less than seven minutes over the 6.4 km (~4 miles] flight distance from Theresienwiese to the laboratory in Frührichstraße. According to the statement from a courier driver who regularly makes the ride between the test station and the laboratory, it often takes an hour or more to travel by van under normal Munich traffic conditions. He has rarely carried more than 15 urgent corona (SARS-Cov-2) test samples. The advantages are obvious: transport by drone is 8 to 12 times faster, emission-free and virtually noiseless.”
Quantum’s Two Fixed-Wing Drones
Quantum makes two fixed-wing craft; the Trinity and the larger Tron, both capable of serious, but different deployments.
Trinity, with its 2.394-meter (7.85-feet) wingspan, can carry a 700-gram (24.7-ounce) payload and cruise at 17 meters per second or 38 miles per hour for up to 90 minutes.
Tron, larger with its 3.5-meter (11.5-feet) wingspan, carries a larger payload (up to two kilograms or 4.4 pounds). This allows Tron to perform some impressive tasks using impressive hardware attachments.
Note the flat angle of attack when all four motors are turned off. Quantum claims a 22:1 glide ratio, and with no power, Tron could glide silently over an area, helping to obtain images of wildlife or illegal gatherings.
A suite of small sensor and communication payloads makes each drone highly versatile. Using LTE (Long Term Evolution) 4G networks and pre-planned routes, either craft can capture data which can be evaluated using PPK (post-processing kinematics) and RTK (Real-Time Kinematics). These two functions cancel errors that might occur in reception of the GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). Coupled with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) on-board the flight vehicle, the Quantum-System iBase Ground Reference Station powered by u-blox communicates with and controls the aircraft. On a small scale, the situation mirrors eHang’s autonomous flight, monitored and if necessary, controlled by a ground-based system.
Quantum autopilot is heart of autonomous operation for Quantum drones
Either drone can visualize the earth below through RGB (Red Green Blue) sensors or multispectral means. These systems are packed into a compact unit in the cargo bay of the machine. In the video below, the machine carries a Sony camera (some versions with up to 42 megapixel full-frame sensors capable of resolving 1.3 centimeters from 100 meters (328 feet) altitude. Visual records combined with the ability to discern hydrological and vegetation patterns enables users to optimize land use.
Compact LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) enable Quantum’s drones to perform complex topographic and topological surveys.
Quantum makes two other drones, the rotary-wing Scorpion and the fixed-wing Vector, more intended for governmental and tactical applications.
The powerful capabilities belie the almost hobby-like sizes of the drones. They are capable of providing quick deliveries of essential materials and bringing back real-time data of great importance to the user. Their systems emulate those of bigger machines and may provide future directions for UAMs.
Ms. Diane Simard, Executive Vice President and board member at Bye Aerospace, has brought several major pieces of news regarding the company’s progress, client purchases and new personnel to your editor’s attention. There are even plaudits for the firm and its founder.
Bye Aerospace explains an important facet of new aircraft development, especially for one with a totally new technology. “A critical design review (“CDR”) is a multi-disciplined technical review to ensure that each eFlyer 2 primary system can proceed into fabrication, demonstration and test. The CDR review also meets the FAA 14 CFR 23 Amendment 64 certification standards and performance requirements within the eFlyer 2 cost, schedule and safety criteria.”
artist’s rendering of eFlyer2, soon to head to production as part of two= and four seat single-motor fleet
George E. Bye, CEO of Bye Aerospace, expressed his appreciation to the firm’s workforce, who accomplished this despite working from home in many instances.“I’m grateful to our remarkable team of engineers, designated engineering representatives, our development partners and suppliers for their support in the engineering progress of eFlyer 2. This important upcoming aviation industry milestone is a reflection of the team’s incredible dedication and hard work.”
Bye has 330 purchase deposits and agreements eFlyer 2 and the eFlyer 4. One purchaser, “with exciting plans for putting eFlyers to use in industry,” signed an agreement for 10 each of the 2’s and 4’s, “for a new aviation entity.” Looking to the future, the new entity reserved a pair of twin-motor six to nine-seat airplanes.
Artist’s rendering of eFlyer2, ready for final touches and production
Bye counts on the “ benefits of electric aviation, including significantly lower operating costs, zero emissions and decreased noise,” to ensure his company’s future. Orders continue in the face of a pandemic and economic uncertainty. Operators and flight schools should be able to pass on their lower operating costs to lure passengers and new or returning student pilots.
Since November, Bye Aerospace has added distinguished names to their leadership team and saw one seven-year veteran named to a major industry organization.
John Knudsen, General Counsel for Bye Aerospace, has joined the Board of Directors of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).
Colonel Rod Zastrow (USAF, Ret.), COO and President of Spartan Air Academy Iraq, has been named to the Strategic Advisory Board of Bye Aerospace,. An F-15 pilot with five commands and vice-commands to his credit, he has designed flight training and maintenance programs for his 125-member academy.
Mark Armstrong has joined the company as a Strategic Advisor. The son of astronaut Neil Armstrong, he graduated from Stanford with a physics degree and has 25 years’ experience in developing software and advising tech companies.
Soon, a four=sear eFlyer4, followed by a twin-motor craft
Cassie Kloberdanz Lee has joined the company as a Strategic Advisor. She is co-founder of the Brooke Owens Fellowship, a highly competitive internship and mentorship program designed to inspire and train undergraduate women seeking a career in aviation or space exploration. Her degrees in mechanical engineering and journalism have helped her in a varied career.
Chrysanthe Gussis has joined the company’s Strategic Advisory Board. Her broad experience in leading legal and economic teams and her specialization in carbon reduction ties neaty with Bye’s mission.
Frank Culbertson has joined the company as a Strategic Advisor.Culbertson, a graduate of the US Naval Academy and US Naval Test Pilot School, was selected for the astronaut training program in 1984. He initially supported various shuttle missions on the ground, including the Challenger accident investigation. Afterward, he served as the lead astronaut at the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL), where he led CAPCOM for seven missions. He flew as a crewman aboard Atlantis and commanded Discovery on STS-51. He served as commander of the International Space Station on his last shuttle mission.
Besides progressing toward certification of its eFlyer, Bye Aerospace has received recent honors, including being named Aurora, Colorado’s Small Business of the Year by the local Chamber of Commerce. George Bye was named one of the top Colorado business leaders in the “Titan 100, an inaugural program that recognizes Colorado’s Top CEOs and C-level executives for their exceptional leadership, vision and passion.” Recognition comes from the company doubling its employee numbers in the last year and garnering press recognition worldwide.
What if we could make “clean” hydrogen from plain water, with none of the problems associated with coal, oil or gas extraction and the waste byproducts produced in extracting brown or blue H2? Several approaches such as artificial leaves have been developed, but a totally different new approach seems incredibly promising. A promising approach may lead to greener-than-green hydrogen.
The Race to Invent the Artificial Leaf
Varun Sivaram, in his book Taming the Sun discusses how Nate Lewis at Caltech and Daniel Nocera at Harvard “determined to find a way to wring fuel out of thin air.” Each has created an “artificial leaf” that emulates the photosynthesis performed naturally by real leaves.
A real leaf is far more complex than one would imagine, and the chemical interactions inside even more so. For all that, photosynthesis is only one percent efficient.
“A commercially viable artificial leaf would solve several of the trickiest challenges in clean energy. It would create a way to directly and affordably store solar energy while producing a carbon-neutral fuel that could transform the transportation sector, even offering a way to make long-distance air travel environmentally sustainable.”
Daniel Nocera succeeded in making a playing card-size artificial leaf, but had difficulty in scaling it to useful size. After starting a company called Catalyx, he partnered with Indian industrial giant Tata to bring a larger leaf-based system to market. According to Wikipedia, “The ideal was to create a stand-alone miniature plant capable of providing enough ‘personalized energy’ to power a small home.” Lockheed-Martin bought Catalyx, but found scaling the processes to be too expensive. Nocera continues with his Nocera Lab at Harvard to explore, “The chemistry of renewable energy.”
Nathan S. Lewis
Nathan S. Lewis created his own artificial leaf years ago, and has expanded that research into a new and quite literal field. Head of the Lewis Research Group (Making Fuels From Sunlight) at the California Institute of Technology, Lewis is also Editor-in-Chief of Energy and Environmental Science, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.
The Research Group has an optimistic outlook for its products. “Solar fuels would provide the same quality and quantity of energy services that end-users are used to, without a massive change in infrastructure, and hence would produce “drop-in” fuels that could serve critical sectors of the energy economy both in the developed and developing world. The feedstocks for solar fuels are abundant: sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen from the air. Solar fuels are sustainable and produce no net carbon dioxide emissions.”
Two major obstacles block the way forward: high costs for solar-generated fuels and the need for, “radically new materials and system designs, that can be installed simply and at low costs.” Noted in the video, materials and systems are a major part of Lewis’ teaching and his Group’s endeavors.
IRENA Says It’s Still a Reach
A major report on green hydrogen published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in September warned that the fuel “should not be considered a panacea.”
“A hydrogen-based energy transition will not happen overnight,” their report states. “Hydrogen will likely trail other strategies such as electrification of end-use sectors, and its use will target specific applications. The need for a dedicated new supply infrastructure may limit hydrogen use to certain countries that decide to follow this strategy. Therefore, hydrogen efforts should not be considered a panacea. Instead, hydrogen represents a complementary solution that is especially relevant for countries with ambitious climate objectives.”
“Greener Than Green Hydrogen”
Perhaps IRENA and others are too pessimistic. A new project in Lancaster, California will become the world’s largest hydrogen production facility when it achieves full operation in 2023. Able to generate up to 11,000 kilograms (24,200 pounds) per day or 3.8 million kilograms (8.36 million pounds) per year.
Lancaster promises a “guaranteed feedstock of recyclables,” about 42,000 tons per year – mostly wastepaper to start with, and possibly followed with the many things that bedevil recyclers and landfills, such as plastic, tires, textiles and even food garbage. In return, the City will save $50 to $75 per ton in “landfilling and landfill space costs,” or about $2.1 million per year.
It will have cleaner air, eliminating the many Diesel-fueled trips to landfills outside the city, and the methane released from those landfills. Better still, the extraordinarily high temperatures of the process enable pollution-free disposal of materials without burning any fossil fuels.
SGH2 was started by a pioneer in plasma technology – Solena Plasma Enhanced Gasification (SPEG) – explained on their web site. “SGH2’s unique gasification process uses a plasma-enhanced thermal catalytic conversion process optimized with oxygen-enriched gas. In the gasification island’s catalyst-bed chamber, plasma torches generate such high temperatures (3500º-4000º C), that the waste feedstock disintegrates into its molecular compounds, without combustion ash or toxic fly ash. As the gases exit the catalyst-bed chamber, the molecules bound into a very high quality hydrogen-rich biosyngas free of tar, soot and heavy metals. The syngas then goes through a Pressure Swing Absorber system resulting in hydrogen at 99.9999% purity as required for use in Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell vehicles. Our process extracts all carbon from the waste feedstock, removes all particulates and acid gases, and produces no toxins or pollution. The end result is high purity hydrogen and a small amount of biogenic carbon dioxide, which is not additive to greenhouse gas emissions.
A very short video shows the plasma, so hot it becomes a fourth state of matter, used to eliminate pollutants from the process.
Economical and Clean
SGH2 provides two tables: one that highlights the economy of their H2 production, and another that shows its self-powering aspect. The latter seems counter intuitive, but would be a boon in not requiring as much supporting infrastructure as other hydrogen production techniques.
SGH2 claims their “greener than green” hydrogen is five to seven times cheaper than green hydrogen made by electrolysis, and cost competitive with hydrogen made from coal or oil. U. S. Production costs are projected to be around $2 per kilogram. The firm compares that to brown hydrogen produced from cheap coal in India, which costs US$2 per kg.
Blue hydrogen costs between US $5 to $7 per kg. in the U. S., and $7 to $11 in Europe and Australia. Green hydrogen produced through electrolysis using renewable power costs US $10 to $15 per kg, depending on availability. Other, dirtier methods are less expensive, but at the cost of polluting more.
SGH2’s “stacked modular design is built for rapid scale and linear distributed expansion, at lower capital costs, and on a fraction of the land required for large scale solar and wind farms. All engineering and construction is standardized and quality assured, performed in collaboration with the largest engineering, procuring and construction companies in the world such as Fluor Group.”
The company claims one other advantage. “Unlike other green hydrogen production from electrolysis with intermittent renewable energy like wind or solar, the SPEG process operates on a year-round base load capacity, and therefore can produce hydrogen at scale more reliably.”
Opening in less than two years, the Lancaster plant will soon be able to demonstrate its capabilities, and whether they live up to the company’s claims. Demo plants in Europe have shown a high probability of success.
Yesterday, a Cessna C208 Caravan lifted off from the AeroTEC Flight Test Center at the Grant County International Airport (MWH) in Moses Lake, Washington, being pulled aloft by a magniX 500 electric motor. The 750-horsepower (560 kW) magni500 propulsion system is the largest to fly so far, and seemed to pull the ten-passenger craft easily, lifting off early and establishing a stable rate of climb.
At last year‘s Paris Air Show, Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX, guided visitors through the promising features of his firm’s two motors and its magniDrive inverter/motor controller. All three products, as shown in the video, have found homes on retrofitted and new airframes.
Thursday’s flight went well. Ganzarski told reporters, “The flight went as I like all flights to go, uneventful. There [were] no issues — it worked exactly as planned, in fact performed a little better than planned. We landed with more battery than expected and the pilot really performed greatly.”
There are compromises involved, though. A turbine-powered Caravan, as reported in Business Insider, has a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), which because of the lower density of lithium batteries compared to Jet-A, would be reduced to 160 kilometers (99 miles). This means shorter routes and/or fewer passengers per flight. The obvious need for better batteries is all too apparent.
Roei Ganzarski addresses some of these issues in this presentation.
It would be nice to think our electric aircraft are progressing rapidly to new peaks of achievement, but often it seems as though we’re struggling to reach endless plateaus. Your editor gave his first symposium talk 11 years ago, and was asked at the time to include motors up to 100 horsepower. Only a few at that time were close to that output level. It took a few years until the Green Flight Challenge saw Pipistrel bring the G4 with its 150-kilowatt (201hp.) being the most powerful electric motor to fly at the time. Siemens unveiled a 260-kilowatt (350-hp.) unit in 2015, able to power an aerobatic plane that could tow a sailplane to altitude with great alacrity. Now we have magniX’s 560 kilowatts (750 hp.), able to haul large loads for short distances.
Cost and maintenance savings will draw operators, but for now they will have to be clever with applications, routes and strategies.
Hydrogen, the first element created from the Big Bang, is the lightest in the periodic table, has the atomic number 1, and is “the most abundant chemical substance in the universe.” (Wikipedia). Until starting this blog entry, though, your editor was unaware that this colorless gas came in brown, blue, and green variants – referring to the methods used to extract h2. Hydrogen can be extracted from some fairly dirty sources, but the dirtiest may lead to an amazingly clean outcome, if we’re to believe what’s happening in Lancaster, California.
The Guardian reports, “Broadly, there are currently three ways to make hydrogen. Brown hydrogen is produced when the element is stripped out of fossil fuels such as coal, while blue hydrogen is produced from gas. Green hydrogen is produced from running an electric current through water using an electrolyser powered by renewable energy such as solar.” (A simplified list)
Brown H2 from Brown and Black Coal
Brown coal has more oxygen than black coal as part of its makeup, making it more easily broken down in a gasification process. The Explainer lives up to its name. “But to get a lot of hydrogen, the coal needs to be ‘gasified’ rather than burned, creating compounds that can then be reacted with water to make hydrogen. This is where the majority of hydrogen comes from in this case – not from the coal itself.”
The Explainer cautions, “Hydrogen produced in this way is not a zero-emission fuel. Carbon dioxide is emitted through the combustion and thermal decomposition reactions, and is also a product of the reaction between carbon monoxide and water to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide.”
Blue Hydrogen from Natural Gas
Blue hydrogen undergoes much the same high-heat processing as brown H2 but starts with natural gas as a base material. As clean as the end product may be, one has to consider the release of methane and the pollution of aquifers that accompany hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,‘ used to release oil and gas from underground vaults. These are added “costs” of every technology, and may not always be readily apparent.
Deloitte China makes this prediction. “To many commercial operators, ‘blue gas’ seems to be a complex and expensive technology for the future. However, we have proven through our deep research and proprietary model that [it] will become cheaper to run than traditional internal combustion vehicles or battery electric very soon. Sophisticated commercial operators around the world are already investing in this technology to stay one step ahead of the competition.”
Comparing Batteries to H2
CNBC reports, “Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has dismissed hydrogen fuel cells as ‘mind-bogglingly stupid,’ and that is not the only negative thing he has had to say about the technology. He has called them ‘fool cells,’ a ‘load of rubbish,’ and told Tesla shareholders at an annual meeting years ago that ‘success is simply not possible.’”
Calculated “break-even price” of renewable hydrogen for Germany (left) and Texas (right) compared to benchmark prices for hydrogen supply from fossil fuels not using CCS. For Germany, this assumes a waiving of the requirement for subsidies that renewable electricity be fed into the grid. The peak in 2020 for Texas is due to a phasing out of the production tax credit (PTC), a fixed credit per kWh of produced electricity. [Source: Glenk & Reichelstein (2019)]. NOTE: CCS = Carbon Capture and Storage
Another approach uses digester gas from sewage treatment to make natural gas, from which hydrogen can be extracted.
Our next entry will cover green hydrogen and a seemingly too-good-to-be-true approach that is better than carbon neutral.
A well-produced video looking like a Christopher Nolan trailer for an upcoming Batman film — Silverwing’s preview of its coming attraction wraps us in a cocoon-like cockpit with a heads-up display to envy. Silverwing’s S1 was one of 20 machines to show up at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California for the GoFly Prize flyoff.
As Beth Stanton reported in the May issue of Sport Aviation, the gathering represented the best of 854 teams from 103 countries who made it through the first phase of the competition over two years ago. The attrition rate may seem high unless one considers the difficulty level posed by the contest’s constraints.
Beth’s article, “On the Edge of Possibility,” draws its title from a statement by Malcolm Foster, a GoFly judge and mentor, and director of special projects at GKN Aerospace. He explained the challenge involved: “The eight-and-a-half-foot diameter with current battery technology was right on the edge of possibility.” He referred to the size limit for the single-person-carrying vehicle that rise from and land within a 30-foot diameter circle with imaginary walls 12-feet high.
Beth expanded on the technical aspects involved. “A basic principle for hovering vehicles is to get disk loading as low as possible with a rotor that is as large as possible. Competition constraints limited the overall vehicle dimensions to eight and a half feet. It proved extraordinarily challenging to create a design using smaller rotors that would then require larger batteries to power it.”
Despite that, 20 teams from all over the world achieved at least partial success and showed up. They came with complete vehicles, partially-complete craft, and some scale representations of what they hoped to achieve. Foster added, “It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. There are very few professional designers who could actually come up with something successful within that envelope.”
Covering the two days at Moffett Field, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association interviewed Gwen Lighter, CEO and co-founder of GoFly, Her dynamic personality, coupled with persuasive techniques learned at Harvard Law School, probably helped her talk Boeing into helping bankroll this singular enterprise.
One might be forgiven for not being able to recognize the aerodynamic qualities of many of these creations. Remember that each was designed to meet a unique set of criteria. Although none met with visible success this year, next year’s sequel may usher in a new era of personal, if quirky, flight. Perhaps the ride will be as smooth as that of the Silverwing video.