Battery-powered airplanes suited to carrying passengers on regional routes or on charter flights are being developed and could be flying around New Zealand within the next decade.

Air New Zealand boss Christopher Luxon said this country would be ideal for the new technology because of its energy mix.

Boeing-backed Zunum aims to have its first hybrid-electric aircraft delivered to a charter airline in 2022. The aircraft will fly up to 12 passengers more than 1000km and the United States company wants to build larger planes with greater range.

The new aircraft is powered by twin fans attached to the rear of its fuselage. The covered fans will be driven by battery-powered electric motors. A conventional fuel-powered motor will initially serve as a back-up system.

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Battery packs will be housed in the aircraft's wings. Battery technology is advancing rapidly with the power-to-weight ratio improving and new materials making aircraft lighter.

Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens have formed a partnership which aims at developing a demonstrator.

The companies' E-Fan X hybrid-electric demonstrator is anticipated to fly in 2020 following ground testing, provisionally on a four-engine BAe 146, with one of the aircraft's four engines replaced by a 2MW electric motor.

The partners now have about 50 people working on the E-FAN X project, a spokesman said.

''We believe the technology will probably mature in the early 2020s, but given the challenges of certification, we would expect to see this type of new generation all-electric aircraft (small passenger capacity and small range) appearing between 2025 and 2030 in a real passenger service with major potential,'' an Airbus spokeswoman told the Herald.

As part of the E-Fan X programme, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens say they are committed to meeting the European Union environmental goals for aviation of a reduction of carbon dioxide by 75 per cent, a cut to nitrogen oxide of 90 per cent and noise reduction by 65 per cent by 2050.

''These cannot be achieved with the technologies existing today. Electric and hybrid-electric propulsion are seen today as among the most promising technologies for addressing these challenges.''

Airline chiefs at the International Air Transport Association annual meeting in Sydney all expressed concern about rising oil prices and the industry is looking for alternatives.

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An impression of Zunum's electric plane.
An impression of Zunum's electric plane.

Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon said this country would be ideally suited for electric planes, given its high output of renewable electricity - up to 90 per cent - and suitability to trial technology.

''The combination of renewable electricity and advanced aeronautical thinking around is something that we could uniquely position our country and economy around being a bit of Petri dish,'' he said.

''I personally think within five years there will be an electric-turboprop-type aircraft.''

The same reason that Rocket Lab is launching from New Zealand meant new types of planes could be trailed here.

''We have a really sophisticated air-traffic management here in New Zealand, like other countries in the world, but we have a relatively unencumbered and free air space,'' said
Luxon.

Zunum prototype electric motors will be ground tested later this year.

The company describes itself as being ''dreamers, engineers and pilots'' primarily based in the Seattle and Chicago areas, and with partners across the US.


* Grant Bradley travelled to Sydney courtesy of IATA