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Aerospace & Defense

IHI steps up drive for electric planes to help cut fuel costs

Rolls-Royce testing battery-powered aircraft

The Boeing 787 is one of the most electrified jetliners in the world.

TOKYO -- Efforts to develop technologies for electric aircraft are taking off, with manufacturers seeing fuel-saving technologies as key to success in the coronavirus-hit industry.

Japanese heavy-industry powerhouse IHI has developed a system that will help airliners go electric for more than 90% of their equipment. Propulsion will be provided by conventional aircraft engines, but electricity will power air conditioning and other equipment, with the system featuring high-output motors for fuel pumps and air-cooled waste-heat technology.

If employed in Boeing's widely used 787 Dreamliner, the system is expected to cut fuel consumption by 4% or more.

While 4% might sound small, it would be a big help because fuel accounts for around 20% of airlines' expenses.

Take fuel costs at ANA Holdings and Japan Airlines, which total 200 billion to 300 billion yen (around $1.9 billion to $2.8 billion) a year each. If IHI's new system is used in half of their fleets in the future after commercialization, the move would result in annual savings of around 5 billion yen.

IHI aims to commercialize the new system as early as 2030. In the 787 jetliner, 77% of systems such as air conditioning run on electric power -- one of the highest figures in the industry. If Boeing taps the Japanese manufacturer's technology, the electrification rate would rise to 94%, according to IHI.

IHI seeks to differentiate itself from French rival Safran and U.S. peer Collins Aerospace, which are developing electric air-conditioning and propulsion systems.

Even as electrification of the aircraft engine is thought to be years away, major players are pouring capital into cutting-edge technologies.

Rolls-Royce is developing an electricity-powered testing aircraft with zero carbon dioxide emissions that can fly 480 kph, the fastest of its type. The one-seater will have enough electric pack to fly 320 km, or the distance between London and Paris, on a single charge.

Separately, the U.K. company plans to release an electric propulsion system for a compact, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration-certified propeller plane. With these next-generation aircraft, the aim is to record essentially zero CO2 emissions in 2050.

An electric plane owned by Bye Aerospace of the U.S., featuring an electric propulsion system by Rolls-Royce. (Photo courtesy of Bye Aerospace)

Meanwhile, startups are gaining presence in the aviation industry long dominated by big players. U.S. developer Bye Aerospace in June began testing a two-seater featuring an electric propulsion system from Rolls-Royce and will kick off a testing program for certification in 2021.

Growing needs to comply with environmental regulations are fueling the push for electrification in the aerospace industry. Norwegian airline Wideroe aims to go all-electric for short-haul flights by 2030. Swedavia, an operator of airports in Sweden, has pledged to achieve fossil-fuel-free domestic air travel by 2030.

The airline industry has taken a beating from COVID-19 pandemic. ANA's and JAL's net losses added up to 200 billion yen for the April-June quarter, while the top three U.S. carriers, including American Airlines, also bled much red ink. Airlines have been rushing to slash costs, and Airbus has abandoned development of a plane using electrification technology.

But the pandemic-induced timeout may spur moves to adopt all-electric aircraft sooner. While deliveries may be deferred for large airliners, which account for a majority of international flights, new regional jets continue to be deployed. Demand for electrification may grow for smaller aircraft first.

The European Union is also driving the trend, hammering out economy-rebuilding plans with a "green recovery" scheme. The French government conditioned a rescue package for Air France on halving CO2 emissions on domestic flights by 2024.

The plunge in demand poses a challenge to get the momentum going for electrically powered systems. But the aircraft electrification market will more than double from 2022 to $8.6 billion in 2030, MarketsandMarkets Research projects.

"The coronavirus may provide opportunities for financially sound buyers to acquire developers of great technologies," said Waichi Yamamoto, a principal at the Tokyo office of consultancy Roland Berger. "Industry realignment may move forward for electrification and other cutting-edge technologies."

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