Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight

Aviation accounts for 2 per cent of man-made carbon emissions — but that could be vastly reduced by new technology

The first ever hybrid aircraft to be able to recharge its batteries took off yesterday — potentially signalling the beginning of a new form of low-carbon, green flight.

Cambridge University researchers teamed up with Boeing to make the plane.

They hope that the plane will be able to provide new forms of cleaner, low-carbon air travel.

Hybrid engines — which are gaining popularity in cars — combine a battery and a petrol engine. Doing so uses 30 per cent less fuel than a plane with a petrol-only engine.

The petrol engine works with the battery-powered one at take-off and climb, when the plane needs extra power, but the electric motor can then switch into generator mode and recharges the batteries, or help the motor in minimising fuel consumption. The same technology is used in hybrid cars.

“Although hybrid cars have been available for more than a decade, what’s been holding back the development of hybrid or fully-electric aircraft until now is battery technology,” said Dr Paul Robertson of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who led the project. “Until recently, they have been too heavy and didn’t have enough energy capacity. But with the advent of improved lithium-polymer batteries, similar to what you’d find in a laptop computer, hybrid aircraft – albeit at a small scale – are now starting to become viable.”

The technology is still far from able to be put on commercial airliners, but the move is an important step, researchers said.

The test flights took place at Sywell Aerodrome near Northampton. The plane did a series of small hopes along the runway before taking off for evaluation flights at over 1,500 feet.

Aviation is thought to be responsible for about 2 per cent of man-made carbon emissions.

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