NASA wants to stick electric engines on the back of airliners

5 Jan 2016

In a bid to drastically cut the amount of fossil fuels used in everyday passenger aircraft, NASA’s researchers have begun working on a concept that will see a large electric engine attached to the rear of a plane, essentially making it a flying hybrid.

NASA is obviously aware of the issues that have so far prevented aeronautical engineers from recreating the same power achieved with fossil fuel-powered craft in electric-powered ones, despite efforts like Solar Impulse 2 to show it’s possible.

Based off its early plans, rather than trying to immediately develop a purely clean, electric engine for aircraft, it will look to replicate the concept so effectively used in cars and turn planes into hybrid craft.

The researchers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center – once known as the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory where flight pioneer Orville Wright developed the technology – are now looking at power systems that could generate electricity in addition to the kerosene-powered engine.

One of the lead engineers of the project, Amy Jankovsky, explained: “These systems use electric motors and generators that work together with turbine engines to distribute power throughout the aircraft in order to reduce drag for a given amount of fuel burned.

“Part of our research is developing the lightweight machinery and electrical systems that will be required to make these systems possible.”

Speaking yesterday about the potential for such low-carbon-emission technologies, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics research, Jaiwon Shin, said: “If these technologies start finding their way into the airline fleet, our computer models show the economic impact could amount to $255bn in operational savings between 2025 and 2050.”

By placing an electric-powered engine at, say, the rear of the plane, NASA estimates that the amount of carbon emissions released by each flight could be reduced by as much as 30pc.

Passenger jet image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic