It’s no secret that aviation is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. Everything from the creation of the aircraft to the strain required to keep a heavy metal box suspended in the air incurs the release of toxic gases. Estimates suggest that 5% of human-driven climate change can be attributed to planes alone.
Given the immense size of the industry and its importance for enormous sections of the global population, is it ever likely that we will find a travel solution that combines the speed and relative accessibility of planes with a pressing need to eradicate carbon emissions and slow global warming?
Pilot and innovator André Borschberg has been consumed by similar questions. And in 2016, alongside long-term collaborator Bertrand Piccard, he completed the unthinkable: a maiden voyage around the world in a plane powered entirely by the sun. ‘Solar Impulse 2’ was a revelation—with the hypothetical ability to fly forever—but entirely impractical. It could only fly at slow speeds, was so cramped that the pilots were forced to use a toilet built into the seat, and was so light that it was unstable and difficult to fly.
Nevertheless, the experience taught Borschberg and Piccard a lot about the viability of using renewable fuel sources to fly. His newest company, H55, aims to take that knowledge and explore battery-powered possibilities for more realistic planes.
H55 has created ‘Energic’, an all-electric plane that can stay afloat for 90 minutes. Battery and propulsion technology used by the solar plane are applied in the new model, which works like any other aircraft, climbing 900 feet per minute and cruising at speeds of 125mph. The idea is that if pilots can get used to flying electric—a feeling that Borschberg assures the magazine Wired is “exceptional,” offering the torque of a regular take off without the all-consuming roar or vibration of a regular plane—they will be life-long advocates for aviation solutions that diverge from fossil fuels.
Borschberg hopes to scale-up from small craft to a larger, more practical plane, ultimately using his knowledge about battery-powered flight to become the “enabler of the VTOL [Vertical Take Off and Landing] guys.” Air taxis that are able to take off from one building and fly to another, or drones that take off to deliver packages, are expected to be staples of the future—but they won’t be able to work without rechargeable batteries. Borschberg’s work with H55 may not only help this happen sooner and more safely, but eventually lead us towards a future in which those batteries are powered by nothing but renewable energy.