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Electric skies: NASA claims progress on hybrid plane engine


Airplanes of the future may be powered by hybrid-electric engines, NASA engineers working to keep the skies free of fossil fuels say. Developing the new propulsion is not exactly rocket science, but it may lead to reinventing the airplane in the process.

NASA is presenting the current state of its propulsion research at the 2016 SciTech conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, currently taking place in San Diego, California.

Project engineers and researchers at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio are looking at electrical systems that could either replace or complement the current turbine engines, turning electricity into thrust. Switching to a new type of propulsion is not going to be simple, however.

“Moving toward alternative systems requires creating new aircraft designs as well as propulsion systems that integrate battery technologies and electromagnetic machines like motors and generators with more efficient engines,”said Jim Heidmann, manager for NASA’s Advanced Air Transport Technology project.


Part of the challenge is to make the electrical systems lightweight and more efficient. Engineers at Glenn are also looking at the basic materials involved, hoping to come up with better semiconductors, motors and generators.

“These systems use electric motors and generators that work together with turbine engines to distribute power throughout the aircraft in order to reduce drag for a given amount of fuel burned,”says Amy Jankovsky, subproject lead engineer.  “Part of our research is developing the lightweight machinery and electrical systems that will be required to make these systems possible.”