An artist’s conception of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell aircraft.

An artist’s conception of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell aircraft.

NASA electric plane could spur cleaner aviation

NASA is developing an electric plane to accelerate the introduction of zero-emission aircraft that use less energy and cruise at higher speeds than the aircraft of today. If successful, the plane could become a significant first step toward a new era of more efficient and environmentally friendly air travel.

The electric plane, which NASA is calling the X-57, will seat only a pilot. NASA is also planning five larger planes capable of carrying far more passengers and cargo.

The plane will include 14 motors that power propellers on an unusually thin wing. Typically such a narrow wing would be out of the question, because planes need the lift that a broad wing provides during takeoff and landing. But because NASA has a cluster of propellers lining the wing, more air will be blowing across the wing, providing extra lift.

While all 14 motors would operate during takeoff and landing, only two would be needed once the plane is cruising high in the sky.

The X-57 will have a limited range of about 100 miles and an hour or less of flight time. But the agency is thinking long-term and counting on advances in battery technology to dramatically augment the plane’s power in future years.

“If batteries continue to be on the same rapid increase in energy density that they have been on over the past 10 years or so, one can envision five to 10 years out in the future the battery technology would be such that this particular aircraft could be enabled for a commercial-type aspect,” said Matt Redifer, the chief engineer on the project.

NASA has a four-year timeline for developing the aircraft. Its first step will be to convert a Tecnam P2006T, an Italian twin-engine light aircraft, to a purely electric powered plane.

NASA hopes to show that switching to a distributed electric system relying on 14 motors will be five times as energy efficient as a typical plane.

The development of an electric plane could prove valuable amid concerns about climate change. Commercial aircraft contribute 11 percent of U.S. transportation emissions and 3 percent of all U.S. emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another benefit of an electric airplane would be less noise pollution due to the quieter motors.

This is the first experimental plane NASA has designed itself in a decade. The organization’s history in experimental planes dates to 1947 with the first piloted airplane to break the sound barrier.

NASA is nicknaming the X-57 “Maxwell,” in honor of James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th-century Scottish physicist who is known for his work in electromagnetism.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden formally announced the project Friday at a conference.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

David Simpson (left) and Scott Murphy.
Port of Everett candidates spar over transparency

An incumbent, David Simpson, is challenged by Everett City Councilmember Scott Murphy.

Rendering of the new terminal that Propeller Airports plans to build at Paine Field in Everett. The terminal, which will serve the general aviation community, will replace Castle & Cooke Aviation's existing building at the Snohomish County-owned airport. (Propeller Airports LLC)
Propeller Airports to acquire Castle & Cooke at Paine Field

Propeller, which owns the nearby passenger terminal, plans a new complex for private aviation.

FILE - In this May 26, 2020, file photo, a sign at the headquarters for the Washington state Employment Security Department is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Washington state's rush to get unemployment benefits to residents who lost jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak left it vulnerable to criminals who made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Washington’s unemployment rate in September was 4.9%

Employers added 17,600 jobs last month, a 7.3% increase over August.

With the Olympic mountains in the background, the first passenger flight by Alaska Airlines Flight 2878 departs for Portland on opening day of the Paine Field Terminal on Monday, March 4, 2019 in Everett, Wash. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Alaska Airlines stalls plan for extra flights in Everett

Business has been sluggish, but the airline says it will offer 12 flights a day at Paine Field in the new year.

Hillside homes in Mukilteo are seen from the ferry line on Oct. 20. (Andrea Brown / The Herald)
Mukilteo asks for input on housing density, and it’s complicated

Here’s a guide to what voters should know about the advisory ballot measure. What does it actually do?

People hold signs in protest of the vaccine mandate after Boeing announced it would terminate workers who do not comply on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Some Boeing workers protest in Everett over vaccine mandate

The Boeing Company announced earlier this week that its workers must be vaccinated by Dec. 8.

FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, March 11, 2019, rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The number of deaths in major air crashes around the globe fell by more than half in 2019 according to a report released Wednesday Jan. 1, 2020, by the aviation consultancy To70, revealing the worst crash for the year was an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX on March 10 that lost 157 lives. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, FILE)
Former Boeing test pilot pleads not guilty in 737 Max case

He’s the first person to be charged with a crime in connection with the Indonesia and Ethiopia crashes.

FILE - In this March 14, 2019 file photo, Ethiopian relatives of crash victims mourn at the scene where the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff killing all 157 on board, near Bishoftu, south-east of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. Relatives of some of the passengers who died in the crash will mark the two-year anniversary of the disaster on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, by seeking a reversal of government orders that let Boeing 737 Max jets fly again.  (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, File)
Boeing pilot involved in Max testing is indicted in Texas

He’s accused of giving the FAA false information about systems that played a role in two deadly crashes.

Top (L-R): Kim Daughtry, Steve Ewing. Bottom (L-R): Gary Petershagen, Marcus Tageant.
Developers court Lake Stevens council incumbents with over $20K

Over half of the campaign dollars for four candidates came from people tied to real estate or property development.

Traffic drives in view of a massive Boeing Co. production plant, where images of jets decorate the hangar doors, Friday, April 23, 2021, in Everett, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Boeing says workers must get the COVID vaccine by Dec. 8

“Compliance with these requirements is a condition of employment,” says an internal company presentation.

The Boeing 737 Max 10 airplane landing at Boeing Field in Seattle on June 18. (Chona Kasinger / Bloomberg)
Boeing ramps up 737 Max but 787 deliveries are still blocked

Boeing last month maintained its steady trickle of sales as it navigates the aviation downturn.

A handful of Northwest Union Carpenter members picket in front of the new Marysville civic center construction site on the sixth day of a region wide union carpenter strike on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 in Marysville, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Carpenters strike ends with new contract and a $10 raise

Roughly 500 union members were working on projects in Snohomish County. It was among the largest strikes in 18 years.