Life Cycle: What Are The Sustainability Advantages & Disadvantages Of Electric Aircraft? – Simple Flying

Life Cycle: What Are The Sustainability Advantages & Disadvantages Of Electric Aircraft? – Simple Flying

Electric aircraft will certainly bring a lot to the table.

Electric Aircraft
Photo: Chalmers University of Technology

Summary

  • Electric aircraft can have up to 60% less of a climate impact than conventional planes.
  • However, they use rare minerals about 50% more, primarily in large-scale batteries.
  • Electric aircraft and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) could prove key transition technologies to help in reducing emissions.

Electric aircraft are one of the aviation industry’s best hopes to drastically reduce its carbon footprint in the coming decades, but these planes still remain in developmental stages. As a result, measuring just how drastically their introduction to service will reduce carbon output can be extremely challenging to gauge.

A new study

Nonetheless, researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden have sought to identify the exact difference in long-term sustainable impact between an electric aircraft and conventional equivalents. This has given a key glimpse into the benefits of electric planes.

The study involved the world’s first Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of such a plane. This process evaluated the sustainable operations of an electric aircraft throughout its entire lifespan, from manufacturing to retirement, and it was recently published in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.

Pipistrel Velis Electro

Photo: Pipistrel Aircraft

Unsurprisingly, researchers were able to determine that the climate impact of the electric aircraft would be lower than that of its fossil fuel-based counterparts.

According to the study, however, there are some downsides to increased electric aircraft operations, such as a rapidly growing mineral resource scarcity. In this article, we will take a deeper look at the results of this experiment and evaluate the ramifications of its various long-term conclusions.

Experimental philosophy and results

In order to adequately gauge the differences in carbon footprint between an electric aircraft and its conventional equivalent, the team acquired a commercially available battery-electric Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane. The team analyzed the aircraft with what it calls a ‘cradle to grave’ methodology, examining all facets of the airframe from raw material extraction to end of life, with a functional one-hour flight time.

Pipistrel Aircraft

Photo: Pipistrel Aircraft

When evaluating performance, the team measured different impact categories, including greenhouse gas emissions, mineral resource scarcity, particulate matter formation from particle emissions, and acidification from acidic emissions. The lead author of the study, Rickard Arvidsson, had the following words to share regarding his team’s primary findings at the conclusion of the research process:

β€œThe key take-home from this study is that small electric aircraft can have a notably lower climate impact – up to 60 percent less – and other types of environmental impacts than equivalent fossil-fuelled aircraft.”

Arvidsson did go on to add some caveats to this takeaway, specifically pointing to mineral resource scarcity. According to the study, electric aircraft use rare minerals about 50% more than conventional planes, even in the most favorable scenarios. This number is mostly attributed to metals used in large-scale airplane batteries.

SAF Tanker from Neste

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What does it all mean?

This study undeniably yields some rather promising results, and, if aircraft across the board were to convert to electric propulsion, emissions from the aerospace sector would certainly be lower. Nonetheless, electric aircraft, at least with current battery technology, are by no means a catch-all route to net-zero emissions.

United Airlines SAF

Photo: United Airlines

What the industry currently lacks is the kind of battery that would allow for long-term sustainable operations without the use of rare metals, a challenge that has proved difficult to solve thus far. In the meantime, electric aircraft, much like sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), could likely prove a key transition technology for the industry to reduce emissions in the medium term.