Editorial Feature

Rolls Royce and EADS Plan "E-Thrust" Hybrid Electric Aircraft for 2050

Rolls Royce and EADS have announced a joint project to develop a commercial aircraft which works on a similar principle to today's hybrid cars. The E-Thrust electric aeroplane will rely heavily on advanced materials technology, including many predicted future innovations. It is estimated that the project will complete in 2050.

The E-Thrust is an electrical distributed propulsion system concept for lower fuel consumption, fewer emissions and less noise. Image credit: Airbus - EIVI

The E-Thrust concept developed by EADS uses a "distributed propulsion system" of six electrically powered fans to propel the aircraft. These fans will be powered by a single electricity-generating turbine engine running on gas.

According to the team, splitting up the propulsion system in this way will allow each component to be developed and optimized independently, making for a more efficient process.

Each of the components in the propulsion system - the propulsion fans, the energy storage, and the central gas power unit - will rely on enabling materials technology which is not currently feasible. This is one of the reasons for the long-term nature of the project - by the time the concept has matured to a prototype stage, the development team predict that technology will have advanced enough to make their ideas viable.

Lightweight composite fan blades

The E-Thrust will rely on arrays of lightweight, high-efficiency electrical fans to propel the aircraft forward. In current designs, there are six fans grouped in two arrays of three - however, the optimum number arrangment of fans is still to be determined.

The fan blades will be made of a lightweight advanced composite to keep the weight of the units down to an absolute minimum. This will allow them to be placed in the best positions for the aerodynamics of the aircraft - this is a huge improvement over modern turbofan jet engines, which have to be hung under the wings due to their size and weight.

"Totally superconducting electrical machine"

The electric motors powering the fans - and all connections between the fans, energy storage, and gas power unit - will use superconducting materials. This is a bold step, as it requires cryogenic cooling throughout all the electrical systems.

If a viable system can be designed, however, there are huge benefits to be gained in power and efficiency. Superconducting materials, such as the proposed magnesium diboride, which is currently used in MRI machines, have zero electrical resistance.

In all electrical systems, a significant amount of power is lost as heat due to resistance in the electrical conductors, and using superconductors throughout the system would eliminate this loss. Superconducting electromagnets, as in MRI machines, are also capable of generating huge magnetic fields - laboratory tests have demonstrated fields of up to 17 Tesla, which would make for an incredibly powerful electric motor.

A superconducting motor would also lead to more weight savings, as the ceramic coils and pucks would be far lighter than traditional copper and iron structures used in conventional electric motors.

A paradigm shift for air travel?

Whilst modern aircraft from companies like Airbus are huge technological achievements, they have thus far been optimizations of a mature technology. This project is an exciting step away from the ubiquitous turbofan - it looks set to provide a plethora of commercialization opportunities for advanced materials, and eventually make huge reductions in the environmental impact of our every-increasing air travel.

Will Soutter

Written by

Will Soutter

Will has a B.Sc. in Chemistry from the University of Durham, and a M.Sc. in Green Chemistry from the University of York. Naturally, Will is our resident Chemistry expert but, a love of science and the internet makes Will the all-rounder of the team. In his spare time Will likes to play the drums, cook and brew cider.


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  1. howard bray howard bray United Kingdom says:

    Sounds like pie in the sky to me - pun intended :-)

    Gas turbines are essentially very simple and reliable, just one moving part.

    A hybrid plane sounds horribly expensive and complicated.

    By 2050 the cost of oil will be such that only the mega rich will fly. We may have submerged train lines under the oceans by then. I'll be 84 in 2050 so I'll just be pottering around in my garden by then.

  2. Peter Sharpe Peter Sharpe United Kingdom says:

    Wait, 6 electric fans driven by 1 gas turbine running on gas? Several problems here - firstly, energy conversion effiency. To take electric power from the gas turbine you will lose power through heat at the generators, then when you distribute that power to the electric fans you will lose more power, and finally you will lose even more power at the motor when you comvert back to shaft horsepower. The losses are less if you just have the gas turbine turning a fan or propeller directly.
    Secondly the proposed fuel is gas? As in, natural gas? This has already been tried before, the Russians did it with the Tu-155, to store large quantities of natural gas in any useful quantity it has to be cryogenically frozen and pressurised in a large vessel. In the case of the Tu-155 it took up half the passenger cabin.
    Finally - all six electric fans are powered by one gas turbine? So - essentially this is a single-engined airliner. There is insufficient redundancy here from a safety perspective.
    This concept is interesting science fiction, but unworkable as a practical aircraft design.

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