Combatting climate change with hybrid-electric jet planes

In a quiet industrial backroad at the foot of the Wainuiomata hills, Victoria University’s Robinson Institute is busily developing technology to power the world's first hybrid-electric jet planes.

The team have an ambitious goal to create the world’s fastest superconducting electric motor powerful enough to put 737 passenger planes in the air.

As Deputy Director Dr Rod Badcock explains, combating climate change is at the heart of this project.

“The threat of climate change is obviously critical worldwide, and all countries have realised something needs to be done in the area of passenger planes to combat the issue,” says Dr Badcock.

“Passenger planes release their carbon emissions in the worst possible part of the atmosphere, and it’s something that urgently needs addressing. The Paris Agreement requires a 30 percent improvement in aircraft efficiency by 2035, and having electric planes is absolutely key to reaching this target.”

“Having a 737 plane powered by a superconducting electrical motor will decrease fuel consumption by around 40 per cent, so the environmental and economic implications of this research are huge.”

It is particularly important for New Zealand to push this technology from an economic perspective.

“New Zealand is isolated geographically and we heavily rely on air transport for our trade, international connections and tourism. So New Zealand would be heavily impacted by any sort of restriction on fuel powered air travel in the future.”

The project was recently awarded $6.3 million over five years by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund. The Fund invests in excellent science that has the potential to positively impact New Zealand economically, environmentally and socially.

“The funding from MBIE really is critical – without it we wouldn’t have a team to tackle a project like this,” says Dr Badcock.

The team is collaborating with experts from around the world, including NASA, to develop this vitally important technology for the sake of our planet.