Wellington scientists getting hybrid planes off the ground

A team of Victoria University of Wellington researchers is hoping to use their technology to help build the world's first hybrid-electric jet plane.


The Robinson Research Institute in Victoria's Faculty of Engineering is an international leader in the field of superconductivity—a key mechanism needed to develop cleaner aviation technologies, says principal engineer and Deputy Director Dr Rod Badcock.

“Flying is the most climate-intensive form of transport and contributes hugely to global warming. Emissions from planes have grown by 75 percent since 1990, double the rate of other sectors of the economy. It’s important that a cleaner alternative is found—and fast.

“Electric vehicles have been around for a long time. However, electric planes pose a bigger challenge as they will require very high-power propulsion systems which are subject to stringent weight constraints. Existing electrical machines are simply too heavy.

“The only feasible approach is high-torque, high-speed machines that employ high temperature superconductors.”

The Institute’s international reputation for superconductor science and engineering has caught the eye of NASA and the United States Air Force, which are part of global efforts to develop the world’s first hybrid-electric jet plane.

Three researchers from the Institute have been invited to talk to a NASA special session in Wisconsin next month, about the development of electric aircraft using superconducting technology. Two members of the Institute have been part of the team working on NASA’s Electric Aircraft Technology Roadmap.

A hybrid-electric aircraft would increase aircraft fuel efficiency by more than 33 percent over today’s jet engines, by employing high-speed electric motors to drive aerodynamically optimised turbo-fans.

“We’d like to take our technology to the next step, and develop a motor for a Boeing 737-sized passenger plane. This will use an electric drive-train to connect high-speed electric motors with a fuel-powered generator running at maximum efficiency. A superconducting motor will deliver the all-important power-to-weight ratio,” says Dr Badcock.

“We have collaborations with experts in the United States, United Kingdom and Japan. We’re all using our knowledge and technology to make it a reality.”

Dr Badcock works at Victoria’s Lower Hutt-based Robinson Research Centre alongside a skilled team of engineers and applied physicists, which includes Drs Chris Bumby, Simon Granville, Zhenan Jiang and Stuart Wimbush.

The Institute’s work on high temperature superconductors has also led to a myriad of other potential applications, including high-speed trains, large wind generators, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems.

Helping to build the world’s first hybrid-electric jet plane would have a considerable impact on the New Zealand economy, says Dr Badcock.

“New Zealand depends on aviation. Whether we’re exporting high-value products to the world, or welcoming tourists to our shores, we rely on airlines to serve us. International restrictions on air travel would have a devastating effect.

“Furthermore, New Zealand must implement a step-change in fuel efficiency to maintain emission levels promised in the Paris Agreement—a 30 percent improvement in aircraft efficiencies is required by 2035. This would help protect our growing international tourism industry that brings $12 billion into the economy, and save New Zealand $276 million a year in fuel.

“Developing new, cleaner aviation technology is a demanding goal, but it offers potentially transformative outcomes for New Zealand. There are opportunities for local companies to contribute to and earn from this pressing global problem, including the growth of a new export market that manufactures specialised pieces of machinery.”