Electric Planes Could Soon Be Zooming Through the Skies, And They Can't Come Soon Enough

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An all-electric airplane could be carrying you across the world in the coming years, thanks to new funding from NASA. It's part of the administration’s efforts to help cut back on air travel’s enormous carbon footprint.

Scientists from the University of Illinois will work on the project, to which NASA committed $6 million over three years. Their goal is to figure out a way to use cryogenically cooled hydrogen cells to power planes.

As hydrogen becomes cheaper to use, hydrogen fuel cells are quickly emerging as the hot new clean power source – passengers can now ride a hydrogen-powered train in Germany, and it’s also an energy source for electric cars.

But trains and cars are smaller and, importantly, get to stay on the ground. Airplanes need more fuel, and it needs to be light enough to allow the plane to fly. In their current iteration, hydrogen cells weigh down a jet too much. But the team at the University of Illinois is hoping they can cryogenically cool the hydrogen to make those cells dense and efficient enough to power a plane.

Going Green Can’t Come Soon Enough

The timing of this funding from NASA couldn’t be more critical. Air travel has a giant carbon footprint, and it’s only projected to increase. A single trip between New York and California generates about 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that your car will produce over an entire year.

It’s not just NASA that realizes we need to clean up the skies. Some of the latest transportation innovations seem straight out of a sci-fi movie, like this electric air taxi startup out of Germany. Lilium wants to create a fleet of small electric planes – essentially, flying cars – that would shuttle passengers to and fro, whizzing over those primitive ground-bound cars.

Companies like Boeing, JetBlue and Rolls Royce have also backed projects to get electric planes into the skies, recognizing that it’s the future of air travel.

I Thought NASA Was Only For Space Stuff?

You thought wrong! The first ‘A’ in NASA stands for aeronautics, which means that the administration works on anything related to flying through the air. But the research that NASA does for air and space travel is vast, and its teams have worked for decades to produce efficient, durable and innovative materials that can stand up to the demands of travel through space.

The result of all that research and innovation? We have a ton of everyday products to thank NASA for, including ones that seemingly have nothing to do with spaceships. Everything from dustbusters to your nonscratch lenses to the tiny phone inside your camera has its origins in NASA research. So even if this cryogenically cooled hydrogen fuel cell plane doesn’t work out, here’s hoping something cleaner and greener will emerge from the research.

About the Author

Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the latest innovation and development in the world of science. Her pieces on topics including DNA sequencing, tissue engineering and stem cell advances have been featured in publications including BioTechniques: the International Journal of Life Science Methods, Popular Mechanics, Futurism and Gizmodo.

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