Rolls-Royce to launch all-electric plane in 2020

The racing plane is hoped to be the fastest electric plane in existence.

  • The electric aircraft industry is just starting to get off the ground, with Siemens breaking the world record for the fastest electric aircraft in 2017.
  • With ACCEL (Accelerating the Electrification of Flight), Rolls-Royce intends to beat that record in the spring of 2020.
  • While these are existing developments, the field of electric aviation has significant challenges to face before we can expect to see electric long-distance passenger planes.


Rolls-Royce has announced that its zero-emission, one-seater racing plane will take flight in the spring of 2020 with the aim of beating the world record for the fastest electric aircraft. Siemens had set the previous record in 2017 with a speed of 210 miles per hour, but Rolls-Royce's plane — dubbed ACCEL (Accelerating the Electrification of Flight) — is aiming for 300+.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that today's aviation industry contributes about 3.5 percent toward climate change. If no action is taken to mitigate or reduce the aviation industry's emissions the IPCC predicts that this number could rise to anywhere between 5 and 15 percent by 2050.

These facts and the nascent "flight-shaming" movement inspired by Greta Thunberg have pushed aviation companies to develop electric planes, a task that involves far greater technical challenges than developing electric automobiles. However, experts claim that zero-emission planes for passengers are decades away from being realized.

In a statement, Rolls-Royce officials described the importance of ACCEL in pursuit of this goal. "This is not only an important step towards the world-record attempt," said Rob Watson, the director of Rolls-Royce Electric, "but will also help to develop Rolls-Royce's capabilities and ensure that we are at the forefront of developing technology that can play a fundamental role in enabling the transition to a low carbon global economy."

In collaboration with the electric motor manufacturer YASA and the aviation startup Electroflight, Rolls-Royce's ACCEL features the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for aircraft. Its 6,000 cells provide "energy to fuel 250 homes or fly 200 miles (London to Paris) on a single charge."

Rolls-Royce also points out that ACCEL's powertrain will have an energy efficiency of 90%. In contrast, conventional gasoline engines only use 15 percent of their fuel's energy content, and even Formula 1 race cars only top out at 50% energy efficiency. Electric vehicles are more energy efficient, but ACCEL's powertrain appears to be beat the 80% efficiency that is typical for electric vehicles.

The age of electric flight

ACCEL

Rolls-Royce

Other recent projects show that the electric age of aviation is just beginning to flex its wings. In December 2019, the Canadian commuter airline Harbour Air demonstrated the first electric commercial passenger aircraft. The ePlane, as the project was dubbed, is a seaplane designed for island hopping around the Canadian coastline. Because of the relatively small passenger load and distances involved, this first electric aircraft is well-suited to this purpose, as it can only hold 6 passengers and fly for 30 minutes (with another 30 minutes of reserve power) before requiring recharging.

More projects related to electric aviation were unveiled earlier in the year during the Paris Airshow, including Alice, a project by the Israeli firm Eviation. Alice will be a nine-passenger commercial electric aircraft capable of flying 650 miles at 276 miles per hour and is scheduled to enter service by 2022.

Our biggest stumbling block? Batteries.

While reducing emissions is a nice bonus for these companies, much of this development is driven by simple economics; electricity is far, far cheaper than conventional fuel, and even after investing in all this R&D, air travel will be significantly more cost-effective.

That R&D has delivered results. Much of the technologies involved in electric aircraft and electric vehicles in general has advanced extremely rapidly, with one crucial exception: batteries.

Without a means of storing large amounts of energy more densely and more efficiently, electric aircraft's range will be significantly limited. Currently, 80 percent of aviation CO2 emissions result from flights that travel over 1,500 km (a little less than 1,000 miles), distances that no electric aircraft is capable of covering.

Batteries can be optimized for six different characteristics: their energy density, cost, lifespan, temperature endurance, safety, and power (or the rate at which energy can be released). A smartphone's lithium-ion battery, for instance, should be cheap and endure swings in temperature, but it doesn't need to last too long or release too much energy at once. An airplane's battery system needs to excel on all six of these metrics.

Batteries are tricky, but advances are being made in this industry. With further advancements in electric aviation technology and battery technology, we might get to continue to visit the beautiful places that Earth has to offer without risking their disappearance in the process.

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Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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