How Electric Aircraft Work

The Near Future of Electric Aircraft
SkySpark's electric plane can reach speeds of 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour) on a charge from its lithium polymer batteries -- a current world record.
SkySpark's electric plane can reach speeds of 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour) on a charge from its lithium polymer batteries -- a current world record.
Image Courtesy SkySpark

Developers around the world are currently working on innovations in electric aircraft design. Breakthroughs in fuel cell technology, engine and even propeller design continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with electric airpower. Here are a few examples of just what the future of flight might hold:

The Pipistrel Taurus Electro: This particular electric aircraft looks a lot like an ultralight glider, because that's basically what it is. The catch is that two lithium-polymer battery packs drive a top-mounted propeller with a 31-pound (14-kilogram), 30-killowatt electric motor. This allows the experimental craft to take off on its own rather than depend on another plane serving as a tug.

The Yuneec E430: China's Yuneec International hopes to be the first to offer a commercially available electric airplane. Its E430 plane seats two, reportedly charges in three hours and runs for two and half hours when fully charged -- all at a cost of $89,000 [source: Gizmag]. It depends on 159 pounds (72 killograms) of lithium polymer batteries. The company plans to begin sales in 2010.

The SkySpark: This 100-percent electric aircraft made headlines in June 2009 when it set the world air speed record for an all-electric airplane: 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour). The plane is essentially a modified Pioneer Alpi 300, powered by a 75-kilowatt electric motor and a bank of lithium polymer batteries. The plane is the product of independent startup DigiSky and Turin Polytechnic University. For their next step, the developers plan to power the engine with hydrogen fuel cells.

As for future projects, the sky's the limit to what designers may attempt. For instance, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk boldly proposed the development of a supersonic electronic airplane at a 2009 summit. While this sort of technology is still quite a ways off, it certainly shows where battery power may take us.

Explore the links below to learn even more about human flight and green technology.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Barnes, Phil. "Flight Without Fuel - Regenerative Soaring Feasibility Study." SAE International. January 2006. (July 21, 2009)
  • Blanco, Sebastian. "It's no flying Tesla, but Elon Musk wants electric planes." AutoblogGreen. May 6, 2009. (July 21, 2009)
  • Dickinson, Richard M. "Bill Brown's Distinguished Career." MITT. (July 21, 2009)
  • "Past Project -- Beamed Power Resaerch." NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. March 1, 2008. (July 21, 2009)
  • Hanlon, Mike. "The Yuneec E430 aims to be the world's first commercially available electric aircraft." Gizmag. June 22, 2009. (July 21, 2009)
  • "Lift off for battery-power plane." BBC News. July 17, 2006. (July 21, 2009)
  • "NASA Dryden Power Beaming Photo Collection." NASA. Oct. 8, 2003. (July 21, 2009)
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  • Richard, Michael Graham. "Sky's the Limit: SkySpark 100% Electric Airplane Sets New Speed Record." TreeHugger. June 17, 2009. (July 21, 2009)

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