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Washington Startup Unveils Plans For Electric Jet

The Seattle area has given birth to aviation icons such as the Boeing 747 jumbo jet and carbon fiber 787 Dreamliner. Could a low-emissions electric jet someday join that hall of fame?

On Thursday, Kirkland, Washington-based startup Zunum Aero unveiled the specs for a hybrid electric jet.

The company has backing from Boeing, JetBlue Airways and Washington State's Clean Energy Fund. They've locked down the basic design of their launch model, a 12-passenger airplane with a V-shaped tail and 700 mile range.

Zunum CEO Ashish Kumar said future models will be pure electric, but the initial design has hybrid power for its twin electric fan engines.  

"We have batteries in the wing and then we have a gas turbine generating electricity in the rear fuselage,” he said.  

Kumar said the company is targeting 2020 for the prototype's first flight with first customer delivery two years later. It’s still undetermined where the aircraft will be assembled.

"That's not a pie in the sky. That's five years from now," Kumar underscored.

Kumar said Zunum has identified four categories of potential customers, the largest being corporate and charter jet fleets. He also foresees sales to regional airlines, cargo carriers and military users.

Kumar said introductory conversations determined potential buyers would be comfortable with a range-limited aircraft because of the advantages electric power could offer on short-haul routes.

"Over those routes, the (planes) deliver these extraordinary cost savings, door-to-door time savings, quiet and low emissions," Kumar said.   

Zunum was founded in 2013, but only came out of "stealth mode" this past spring. Airframe design and battery integration is happening at its headquarters in an office park in Kirkland. Zunum recently opened a development office in Chicago as well to tap the pool of electrical engineers there to work on the hybrid electric powertrain.  

The company founders envision producing a family of electric aircraft as battery and powertrain technology improves. Kumar described plans to build a 30-50 seat regional jet next and then a 100-seat airliner after that with a 700-1,500-mile range.


“We believe that the regional transportation industry is ripe for disruption and we're excited to support Zunum and its efforts to help introduce a new era of aviation,” JetBlue Technology Ventures President Bonny Simi said in a prepared statement.    

The specs for the launch model disclosed by Zunum on Thursday included a maximum cruise speed of 340 miles per hour and an estimated 80 percent lower emissions and noise than a comparable conventional jet.  

Independent aerospace analyst Bjorn Fehrm expressed both enthusiasm and skepticism for electric powered flight.   

"Batteries as energy stores leave a lot to be desired," Fehrm said.

In his assessment, electric batteries look impractical for all but helicopters and drones in the near term.   

A battery stores 40 times less energy per kilo than jet fuel, Fehrm noted on his Leeham Company blog, which means far more space or weight needs to be set aside in a battery-powered aircraft.   

"But batteries will improve,” Fehrm wrote. “The car industry is turning electric with force, and it needs efficient and lower cost batteries. This will result in batteries with improved characteristics. The problem is that we are 40 times behind and batteries might improve two to three times in specific energy over the next decade. We need at least 10 times to make longer range battery driven aircraft practical."   

This past week, major European airline EasyJet predicted it would operate commercial flights using electric airplanes "within the next decade."

"Every short haul flight could be electric within 20 years," EasyJet said in a video presentation on its annual Innovation Day.   

EasyJet announced a partnership with a Zunum competitor in Los Angeles named Wright Electric to develop commercial aircraft with “quick-swap” battery packs and a range of 335 miles. That would suit the UK-based airline on routes such as London to Amsterdam or Paris.

In a separate development Thursday, the Boeing Company announced it plans to buy a smaller company with expertise in electric flight. Pending regulatory approval, Boeing said it will take over Virginia-based Aurora Flight Sciences, which makes unmanned aircraft for military and civilian uses.

“The clear commitment at Boeing to electric propulsion and autonomy promises us all a new world of fast and green travel, and we are excited by them bringing Aurora Flight Sciences into the family," said Kumar in reaction.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.