One evening in November of 2016, Omer Bar-Yohay – a former paratrooper turned tech entrepreneur – was having a few drinks after work when he had an unusual Eureka moment. Eviation, the company he'd co-founded with a friend who used to fly F-16s, had set itself a fairly fantastical-sounding goal: producing a fully-electric, zero-emission passenger plane. Technologically, the team had made great strides, but they were yet to come up with a name.
"Honestly, it was just a drunken night at the workshop," Bar-Yohay remembers. They were listening to music – Jefferson Airplane, obviously – when "White Rabbit" came on: "Alice in Wonderland just seemed to fit what we were trying to do."
There have been electric aircraft before, of course. Earlier that same year, a single-seat experimental Swiss plane called Solar Impulse 2 had completed a lengthy circumnavigation of the globe. But making a plane that could carry enough passengers over a long enough distance to be commercially viable still sounded like a pretty crazy dream. Last June, however, after three more years down the rabbit hole, the Eviation team took a huge step towards making that dream a reality as they unveiled their plane at the Paris Airshow. Its name: Alice.
In a world where new models are usually known by numbers (Airbus' A380, or Boeing's ill-fated 737 MAX), that moniker alone was enough to turn heads. It also helped that Alice, with its enormous windows, sleek lines and composite bodywork, looked like the airborne equivalent of a Jaguar E-Type. But the main reason it "stole the show", according to aviation experts, was that this was more than just a prototype. In fact, Eviation announced, one American regional airline had already made "a double digit order". It sounded like the future of flight had already landed.
Despite all that excitement, we're not quite there yet. Orders for new Boeings and Airbuses will far outstrip those for Alice this year, and although big players like these have dabbled in carbon-neutral alternatives to jet fuel, they're yet to throw their weight wholeheartedly behind it. The airlines which drive the market prefer to offer offset schemes, or trumpet bans on single use plastic, instead of tackling the real issue. But despite the lack of interest and investment from major manufacturers, the dream is tantalisingly close.
Assuming all goes well from a testing and regulatory point of view, Alice will enter active service by 2023, and there are other carbon neutral aircraft which could start carrying paying passengers even sooner.
MagniX, the company that makes the engines which power Alice, has been working closely with a Canadian airline called Harbour Air to retrofit their fleet of DeHavilland Beaver floatplanes with electric engines. It's not been an easy task, according to CEO Roei Ganzarski. "It's a 62-year-old aircraft, and it's surrounded by water – which, for an electric plane, is a challenge." But despite all this, on the 10th of December, 2018, the first electrified Beaver conducted a successful flight over Vancouver.
Closer to home, a startup called ZeroAvia received a £2.7 million grant from the UK government last September to pursue the development of a carbon neutral plane powered not by lithium-ion batteries (like the MagniX or Eviation models) but by hydrogen fuel cells. Founder Valery Miftakhov, who holds a recreational pilot's license and flies all his own test vehicles, is betting that this alternative fuel source will help him get his "product" – a modified 20-seater able to fly 500 nautical miles (920 km) – off the ground more quickly than the battery-powered alternatives.
As impressive as these efforts are, there's no escaping the fact that the size and range of these aircraft is limited compared to fossil fuel-powered alternatives. "Instead of the standard 455 miles (732 km) a Beaver can do on a full tank of fuel, the electric Beaver does 100 miles (160km)," says Ganzarski. Alice, meanwhile, will be able to carry its nine passengers 540 nautical miles (just over 1,000 km), enough to fly from San Francisco to LA, or London to Berlin, but still miles away from the performance of the planes most of us take today. A Boeing 737, by comparison, can fly up to 6,000 km, carrying around 150 passengers.
The issue is weight. Generating the electricity needed to get a plane that size into the air – and power it over that distance – would require batteries so heavy it could never possibly leave the ground. "The energy density of fuel is just so much better than the energy density of batteries," Bar-Yohay explains. While Miftakhov believes hydrogen fuel cells offer an advantage, their power-to-weight ratio is still a long way off what's needed to fuel a large airliner.
The technology is developing all the time, of course. According to Dr Euan McTurk, an electrochemist who works with batteries, "the energy density of lithium-ion battery tech is improving at a rate of about 10 percent per year". But even if this were to speed up dramatically, we'd still be decades away from an all-electric 737.
This explains in part why, despite funding some promising projects, larger aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus have been slow to push this new technology. "Those companies are very, very conservative," says Bar-Yohay, while Roei Ganzarski compares them to Kodak – "the company that invented the digital camera" but failed to pursue it "because of their film cash cow".
But if these major manufacturers see a technology that isn't yet good enough for the market, the startups see a market ripe for disruption.
Their argument is based on simple economics. Batteries might not be able to power big planes yet, but the electricity needed to recharge them – even when generated entirely from renewables – is far cheaper than jet fuel. This means when you start looking at the "cost per passenger mile", it doesn't matter that Alice can only carry nine people: each seat, it's estimated, will still cost roughly the same as on a 150-seat 737 – around seven US cents per mile. Electric aircraft can be much smaller and still make sense when it comes to operating costs and ticket prices.
Using smaller planes may also actually give airlines an advantage. "We have trained our brains to think of aviation as something that takes us to a hub," says Bar-Yohay. But he points out that, given the choice, most people would rather not fly from the outskirts of one major city to the outskirts of another. "You drive for hours to a sorting hub, and then fly to another hub, only to sort yourself again, much like a parcel. But we are not parcels." If airlines could afford to operate many more smaller, cheaper flights, he argues, people could get "from point A to point B, not from point A to point C and from there to point D and E and then to point B".
Follow this line of thinking to its logical extreme, and we could end up with thousands of tiny battery-powered aircraft ferrying small groups of passengers door-to-door, like a fleet of airborne Ubers. Indeed, some engineers are already working on this. In May of last year, a German manufacturer called Lilium successfully flew the prototype of what will eventually be a five-seater, vertical take-off aircraft they're calling an "air taxi". But getting to the point where we're all buzzing between city centre rooftops, Jetsons-style, will require further technological leaps – not to mention regulations that have yet to be invented, and a whole host of new infrastructure.
The infrastructure needed for electric planes like Alice to replace today's fossil-fuel megabuses, on the other hand, already exists. "There are already roughly 20,000 airstrips in the continental United States," explains Bar-Yohay. Currently, many of these are only used by hobby pilots, but "maybe 12,000 of them have a runway long enough to accommodate a plane the size of Alice", and, by comparison, only "around 2,000" of them are used by today's commercial carriers. The suggestion is that by operating multiple smaller electric planes, airlines could offer flights to six times as many destinations, all while keeping ticket prices much the same.
Alice and its competitors still have regulatory hurdles to clear before that promise is realised. Lithium-ion batteries on planes haven't had a great reputation since Samsung's phones started blowing up in mid-air back in 2016, and the last time a hydrogen-powered aircraft made global headlines was the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 – although, as Valery Miftakhov points out, "some time has passed since then, and safety has improved a little bit".
Certainly both he and Omer Bar-Yohay are confident that their aircraft will soar over these barriers in time to hit their 2023 delivery dates. And after that? Well, the sky's the limit. As Miftakhov points out, "The engine market is worth $100 billion, the aircraft market $200 billion and the fuel market is another $200 billion. In those three you have half-a-trillion dollars."
Even leaving aside the huge environmental benefits, those are the kind of numbers that would make any businessman, however hard-nosed, sit up and take notice. All of which makes it doubly surprising that Airbus, Boeing and others aren't throwing the kitchen sink at the problem. But then, perhaps that's inevitable.
As Omer Bar-Yohay puts it, "In any industry with major incumbents, there needs to be a cheeky, small, nimble company to kick everybody in the butt – and I really hope it's us."