Blow for commercial aircraft electric propulsion as Airbus and Rolls-Royce cancel E-Fan X programme
Fri 1 May 2020 – Airbus and Rolls-Royce have announced an ending to their joint hybrid-electric E-Fan X demonstrator programme, a pioneering project directed towards the electrification of commercial passenger aircraft. A BAe 146 RJ100 test aircraft with one of its four jet engines replaced by a 2.5MW motor was due to embark on its first flight in 2021. With the industry in Covid-19 crisis mode, both parties have decided the actual requirement to carry out the test flight was “not critical at this time”. Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini said as the aircraft manufacturer started “to navigate the realities of a post-Covid-19 world”, it needed to refocus and reprioritise its efforts to decarbonise the aviation industry. Rolls-Royce CTO Paul Stein said the company would continue with ground testing of the power generation system it had developed for the programme.
Vittadini said when the E-Fan X project was launched in 2017, the ambition had been to push the limits of testing disruptive technologies for future aircraft.
“And we did just that – E-Fan X has shattered pre-conceived notions of what is possible in future flight,” she said. “This helped us pave the way for an industry-wide decarbonisation movement of which we’re proud to take the lead.”
However, decarbonising the industry was “no small feat”, she said. “To achieve this, we need to re-focus all of our efforts on technology bricks that will take us there. It’s for this reason that Airbus and Rolls-Royce have decided to bring the E-Fan X demonstrator to an end. As with all ground-breaking R&T projects, it’s our duty to constantly evaluate and reprioritise them to ensure alignment with our ambitions. These decisions are not always easy, but they’re undoubtedly necessary to stay the course.”
Those “technology bricks” included hybrid architectures, high-voltage systems and batteries that would be employed on other demonstrator projects, and would continue to be developed and matured at the Airbus E-Aircraft System Test House, reported Vittadini. Exploring the possibilities and limitations of serial hybrid-electric propulsion during the E-Fan X project had also opened up inquiry into other new technology pathways, such as hydrogen, she added.
“With our research partnerships on hybrid-electric and hydrogen airport infrastructure and operations, we will have laid a foundation for the future industry-wide adoption and regulatory acceptance of alternative-propulsion commercial aircraft,” she said.
“Thanks to these key learnings, Airbus has developed a more focused roadmap on how to progress on our ambitious decarbonisation commitments.”
Created at a scale never previously seen in the industry and one of the many great achievements of the programme, according to Stein, the power generation system developed by Rolls-Royce for E-Fan X comprised an embedded AE2100 gas turbine driving a 2.5MW generator and 3000V power electronics and an electric propulsion unit. The same size as a beer keg, the generator produces enough power to supply 2,500 homes, he said.
“The learning that has already placed us in an industry-leading position will be taken even further through the completion of the ground testing of our power generation system, which is already well advanced,” said Stein in a blog. “That work – one of a whole host of projects we are actively involved in – will ensure that we remain a pioneer of electrification, ready to power the more sustainable aircraft of the future.”
Zunum Aero, a US start-up that was developing a 12-seat hybrid-electric aircraft for short-haul passenger services failed last year, despite backing and funding from Boeing HorizonX and JetBlue Technology Ventures.