Narrow and wide body aircraft are responsible for more than 75 percent of aviation greenhouse gas emissions, and an increasingly warmer climate will most likely boost that percentage even higher. Because electric aircraft can significantly reduce carbon and nitrogen oxides emissions, it is a promising solution to a global problem.

To explore that solution, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, U.S. Department of Energy has released $10 million in funding to support research that furthers the development of electric aircraft. The agency will fund six projects under the Connecting Aviation by Lighter Electrical Systems (CABLES) topic, one set of various projects that explore innovative and unconventional ideas across the energy technology spectrum. These projects aim to radically improve U.S. economic prosperity, national security, and environmental well-being. 

Serving as principal investigator for one of the selected CABLES projects is Mona Ghassemi, assistant professor and Steven O. Lane Junior Faculty Fellow in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The project team received $1.3 million to develop a prototype for a high-voltage, power-dense, cost-effective cable for twin-aisle aircraft that can safely operate in high-altitude, low pressure environments.

There are two kinds of electric aircraft: more-electric aircraft and all-electric aircraft. The focus of Ghassemi’s project is the latter. She will be recruiting two Ph.D. students to work on the project.

“To achieve an all-electric aircraft, not only do all the subsystems need to be repla­ced by their electrically-driven alternatives, but the thrust power must also be fully provided by electrochemical energy units,” said Ghassemi. “Since the electric power system accounts for nearly 30 percent of the entire system’s mass, it offers great potential, and the cables we are working on are an essential component for optimization.” 

The three-year project will encompass a number of innovations. These include conductors with increased current-carrying capacity and a multilayer, multifunctional insulation system made of high thermal conductivity materials.

“We will also be working on a new insulation solution to provide higher voltages with superior mechanical strength and electrical reliability that reduces partial discharge events,” Ghassemi said. 

All-electric aircraft offers numerous advantages, she said, including less energy consumption, lower greenhouse gas emissions — assuming that the whole process of electricity generation is through renewable electricity generation — less noise production compared to conventional aircraft, and more reliable electric subsystems.

“It is really exciting to be part of something that could impact both the future of aviation and our environment in such a positive way,” Ghassemi said.

Written by Barbara L. Micale

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