Meet Maxwell, the electric plane from NASA set to shake-up the aviation industry

US space agency NASA has unveiled a new experimental aircraft that harnesses 14 electric motors along uniquely-designed wings to replace traditional gas-fuelled piston engines, in an attempt to sever the aviation sector's dependence on fossil fuels.

The new X-57 concept, named “Maxwell” in honour of 19th century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, could create a five-time reduction in energy requirements for aircrafts and reduce operational costs for small aircrafts by as much as 40%.

“With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities – which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative – the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” NASA’s administrator Charles Bolden said.

Unveiled during Bolden’s keynote speech at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) annual Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition, the aircraft will be powered by batteries to eliminate carbon emissions.

With standard aircrafts having to fly at slower speeds to create the best fuel efficiency, NASA believes that Maxwell, which can reach cruising speeds of 175mph, will lead to shorter journeys for passengers as electric propulsion “essentially eliminates” the penalty for cruising at higher speeds.

The X-57 research forms part of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Transformative Aeronautics Program’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions project, but Maxwell marks the agency’s first new plane design in a decade.

As many as five larger planes are also planned under the X research initiative, with the overall goal to demonstrate how advanced technologies reduce fuel use and emissions while simultaneously accelerating the concept’s introduction into the marketplace.

Virgin research

With NASA’s research into clean aviation transport, which it claims could reduce pollutants by 75% and create a $250bn windfall, the industry is beginning to push for a cleaner operating model.

With emissions in the sector set to skyrocket by 250% without an international agreement, companies such as FedEx, Boeing and Airbus have all unveiled new initiatives aimed at promoting sustainability.

Another company set for a sustainability inspired take-off is Virgin Atlantic, which today (20 June) unveiled the results of a new, research driven initiative, which has provided carbon savings of 21,500 tonnes and saved £3.3m in fuel costs.

Alongside the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago, Virgin Atlantic has devised a new approach to deliver carbon and fuel information to pilots to raise awareness of the measures that can be taken to improve efficiency rates.

Separating Captains into four different groups ranging from a business as usual approach to a target driven groups, data from more than 40,000 flights was analysed, with the groups that had targets to aim for delivering “significant improvements” on fuel efficiency.

Virgin Atlantic’s head of sustainability Dr Emma Harvey said: “When the university team approached us about doing an evidence-based study on employee engagement on sustainability, we saw it as a fantastic opportunity to work more effectively with our pilots on fuel and carbon efficiency. They were certainly up for the challenge.

“Consulting closely with an experienced group of Captains, we were able to design something that would work for them.  It was a big undertaking, but the impressive study results are a testament to all of those involved. We’re excited to see how we can build on these findings in future.”

Matt Mace

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