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NASA Aims to Help Electric Planes Take Off -- a Nod to Tesla's Elon Musk's Vision

By Beth McKenna – Jul 23, 2016 at 11:05AM

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Electric planes could be the next big thing.

NASA last month unveiled plans to develop X-57, dubbed "Maxwell," an entirely electric-powered aviation-sized plane capable of reaching speeds of 175 mph, and its first X-plane -- piloted experimental plane -- in 10 years. 

The space agency's goal is to do for electric planes what Tesla Motors' (TSLA -0.19%) co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has done for electric vehicles: help them take off.

Here's what investors -- including those in Boeing (BA 2.01%), Airbus (EADSY -0.30%), and Siemens (SIEGY 0.88%) -- should know. 

Artist's renderig of Maxwell, which will be exclusively powered by 14 electric motors. Image source: NASA.

NASA's "Maxwell" and beyond

Maxwell will be a single-seater, but up to five larger transport-scale X-planes also are planned as part of NASA's $790 million New Aviation Horizons initiative. This is a 10-year program that aims to demonstrate the benefits of using alternative power sources for aircraft, with the goal of speeding up adoption of such technology by the commercial sector.

Today's jetliners are deafening loud, fuel-guzzling, and air polluting. NASA aims to show how electric planes can lessen noise pollution, save fuel costs, and help green-up the air.

NASA will build Maxwell by modifying an Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft. The wing and two gas engines will be replaced with a long, thin wing embedded with 14 electric motors – 12 on the leading edge for take offs and landings, and one larger one on each wing tip for use while at cruise altitude. The agency hopes to show that distributing electric power in this way will result in a five-fold reduction in the energy required for such a plane to cruise at 175 mph.

Maxwell could be flying within four years, according to NASA.

Borrowing a page from Tesla's playbook and nodding to Elon Musk's vision

Musk named his EV company after Nikola Tesla, whose contributions led to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. NASA likewise named its electric plane after another individual worthy of name recognition who has largely been forgotten by history -- James Clerk Maxwell, a 19th century Scottish physicist who did groundbreaking work in electromagnetism.

NASA's electric plane initiative nods to Musk's vision of using electrically powered vehicles to help clean up the world's air. Like Musk, NASA is putting huge resources into accomplishing this goal. 

Commercial players exploring the electric skies 

A Boeing-University of Cambridge experimental airplane powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion system -- the first ever to be able to recharge its batteries in flight -- completed flight tests in the U.K. in late 2014.  

NASA's initiative should go a long way in accelerating the commercial adoption of electric planes, or "EPs." The U.S. government could possibly roll out alternative fuel incentives for plane manufacturers just as it has for automakers if the agency successfully demonstrates the benefits of using such fuels to power aircraft.

The leading aerospace companies have already taken off on their own explorations of using alternative fuels to power aircraft, though their major projects are within the hybrid-electric -- rather than pure electric -- realm. Examples:

  • Boeing has been exploring several hybrid-electric propulsion systems for aircraft, including using conventional jet engines for takeoff but switching to electric power during flight. Boeing has worked with NASA and General Electric, along with several research universities, in its efforts. 
  • Airbus -- Boeing's chief rival -- and Siemens announced in April that they're collaborating exclusively in selected development areas related to aircraft hybrid-electric propulsion. The European duo said they'll put a team of 200 engineers on the project, with the goal of demonstrating the technical feasibility of hybrid-electric propulsion systems by 2020. Siemens plans to establish hybrid-electric propulsion systems for aircraft as a future business.

From take-off to takeaway...

The investor takeaway from NASA's electric plane initiative is straightforward:  The commercial jetliner industry could be disrupted in a similar manner as the traditional auto industry is now being disrupted by EVs. And investment landscapes get rearranged when mammoth disruptions occur.

The future winner(s) in the serially produced commercial electric plane space could emerge from the crop of current major aerospace players, such as Boeing, Airbus, and General Electric. However, with billionaires such as Musk -- he's said several times that he has an idea for a vertical take-off electric plane -- and Alphabet CEO and co-founder Larry Page interested in the aircraft realm, we might see new entrants fly into the game.  

Companies that generate a fair portion of their revenue from the traditional jetliner industry and don't nimbly retool to adapt to a changing marketplace could crash and burn -- or at least lose financial altitude.  

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Beth McKenna has no position in any stocks mentioned, though is staking a claim to possibly the first written use of the acronym "EP." The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Tesla Motors. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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