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Electric Skies: Arkansas Researchers Working on All-Electric Aircraft

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Conceptual rendering of CHEETA aircraft

Soon, the roar of jet-fueled airplanes overhead may be replaced by the sound of electric aircraft. Research teams across the United States are working to create more efficient, alternative fuel aircraft.

Two University of Arkansas professors are participating in a NASA-funded research project to develop an all-electric aircraft. As part of the project, the UA professors – Alan Mantooth, the Twenty-First Century Research Leadership Chair in Engineering, and Fang Luo, an assistant professor, will be working to develop electrically powered aircraft propulsion systems.

The two researchers will be working in partnership with the Center for Cryogenic High-Efficiency Electrical Technology for Aircraft (CHEETA). This program is led by a research team at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, along with partners from the Air Force Research Lab, Boeing Research and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ohio State University, General Electric Global Research, University of Dayton Research Institute and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Over the course of three years, NASA will be providing the UA researchers with $600,000 in funding –out of $6 million total for the project.

Overall, the project is aiming to develop all-electric aircraft to create more efficient plans and reduce dependency on liquid fuel. According to Mantooth, the project is focused on producing an electric aircraft in the 737-800 size range.

By the end of the project’s timeline, the researchers expect to have an “integrated vehicle system with a quiet, efficient propulsion system that produces zero carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions at the vehicle level,” according to a UA news release. Mantooth and Luo will be working on the electronics that drive the aircraft’s motors.

Already, the aviation industry is moving toward electric aircraft, Mantooth says. He cites the Boeing 787 Dreamliner as the vanguard of the electric aircraft movement. The aircraft features “more-electric systems,” as well as electric brakes and electric wing ice protection.

“The Boeing 787 is already considered a “more electric aircraft” due to a tremendous amount of electrification that replaced hydraulics. This trend will continue as it has in cars as well (anti-lock brakes, airbags, lidar for sensing objects nearby, computer-controlled transmissions, fuel mixtures, suspensions, etc.). Electric drive for aircraft wheels for eliminating the noise and fuel usage when taxiing is one example,” he says.

Mantooth says the project has the potential to change the way the aviation industry operates. The most significant implications, he says, will be to airport operations and the environment. The modern world, he says, is made possible by air travel, and increasing the number of more-electric aircraft will impact the environment by a “substantial factor.”

“The industry will have to adapt to the deployment of electric aircraft through changes in their airport infrastructure. This probably is the most serious implication – the handling of liquid hydrogen,” Mantooth says.

Mantooth contends this research project is not only a boon for the University of Arkansas but for the state as a whole. Having major research projects at the university serves as an incentive for students to attend UA and increase the state’s presence in the aircraft and aviation industry, which already ranks as the state’s number one export category.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas’ top export commodity was civilian aircraft, engines and parts, which accounted for $995 million in exports in 2018. Aircraft was more than double the second-highest export commodity, bomb, mines and ammunition, which generated $463 million in 2018.

“Participating in the conceptualization and creation of next generation aircraft platforms represents involvement in some of the most important, and complex, engineered systems in our world,” Mantooth says. “Alongside our work for electrified automobiles and heavy equipment as well as more power electronics in the evolving electric power grid, the University of Arkansas is immersed in important, relevant research that touches the lives of all Arkansans and Americans.”

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