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NASA to build quieter, battery-powered airplane

Washington: NASA is building a new battery-powered experimental airplane nicknamed "Maxwell" that will be more efficient, quieter and will benefit travellers by reducing flight times, fuel usage, as well as overall costs.

With 14 electric motors turning propellers and all of them integrated into a uniquely-designed wing, NASA will test new propulsion technology using an experimental airplane now designated the X-57 and nicknamed "Maxwell."

"With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA's research capabilities ' which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative ' the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

As many as five larger transport-scale X-planes also are planned as part of the initiative. Its goals ' like the X-57 ' include demonstrating advanced technologies to reduce fuel use, emissions and noise, and thus accelerate their introduction to the marketplace.

The first X-plane was the X-1, which in 1947 became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound. NASA researchers working directly with the electric airplane also chose to name the aircraft "Maxwell" to honour James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th century Scottish physicist who did groundbreaking work in electromagnetism.

Part of a four-year flight demonstrator plan, NASA's Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology Operations Research project will build the X-57 by modifying an Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft.

Its original wing and two gas-fuelled piston engines will be replaced with a long, skinny wing embedded with 14 electric motors ' 12 on the leading edge for take offs and landings, and one larger motor on each wing tip for use while at cruise altitude.

NASA's aeronautical innovators hope to validate the idea that distributing electric power across a number of motors integrated with an aircraft in this way will result in a five-time reduction in the energy required for a private plane to cruise at over 280km per hour.

"Maxwell" will be powered only by batteries, eliminating carbon emissions and demonstrating how demand would shrink for lead-based aviation fuel still in use by general aviation. Energy efficiency at cruise altitude using X-57 technology could benefit travellers by reducing flight times, fuel usage, as well as reducing overall operational costs for small aircraft by as much as 40 per cent.

Typically, to get the best fuel efficiency an airplane has to fly slower than it is able. Electric propulsion essentially eliminates the penalty for cruising at higher speeds. Electric motors are more quiet than conventional piston engines. The X-57's electric propulsion technology is expected to significantly decrease aircraft noise.

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