Elgin firm's electric-powered planes taking off amid rising fuel costs

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(ZUNUM Aero)

WEST CHICAGO, Ill. (FoxNews.com) – Aviation pioneers are developing a new way to soar through skies using electric-powered planes to battle rising jet fuel prices. 

“Having a smaller plane that's more environmentally friendly - that has to be a good thing right?” Mathew Hare said while visiting downtown Chicago from Cambridge, England.

There are many people in downtown Chicago who like the idea of an ”eco-friendly” aircraft. “I think that's a very innovative and great idea,” businessman Boris Chumak told Fox News. “As long as it, you know, passed all the safety concerns, all the safety regulations, why not?”

Dozens of companies are designing this new type of electric powered aircraft. But ZUNUM Aero, a startup with a facility in Elgin, Illinois hopes to be the first to fly commercial regional flights in the U.S.

"We have studies. We have trends. We're monitoring what the electric vehicles are doing on the ground ... all we need to do is convert that to flight,” ZUNUM power chief technology officer Waleed Said said.

ZUNUM’s 10-to-12-passenger hybrid plane is designed to fly up to 1,000 miles per charge. “Travel from the Boston area to the Washington, DC area could be as quick as two hours, 30 minutes door-to-door compared to four hours, 50 minutes today,” ZUNUM representative Meaghan Shields said in a statement.

Funded by Boeing HorizonX, Jet Blue Technology Ventures, and the State of Washington Clean Energy Fund, the company claims its aircraft will reduce carbon emissions and noise by up to 80 percent.

“They really will have zero emissions. There won’t be any kind of pollutants, really at all, that will come from a battery-powered airplane,” Flying Magazine Senior Editor Robert Mark said. “There is that motive that we want to clean up the environment as well and again fuel is very, very, expensive right now ... electricity costs, but it doesn’t cost as much as fossil fuels.”

Shields says customers can expect to pay eight cents per seat mile, or $250 per hour for the aircraft. So, a flight from San Jose to the Los Angeles area could cost an average fare of $120 one-way.

Airline Weekly’s Seth Kaplan says that, for now, the technology is most applicable to business jets and airlines that fly to smaller, lesser-known cities.

“If this can become something that’s an alternative on large airplanes the consumer benefit that potentially, the price of oil starts to matter less,” Kaplan said. “Right now when jet fuel prices surge, that usually ends up meaning more expensive airline tickets for all of us.”

With any new technology there are those who are skeptical. Jimmy Scardina, a Chicago resident, says he would not fly on electric-powered aircraft. He thinks it’s suicidal.

“I think that people, as things are developing, they need to get more knowledge about what they're doing,” Scardina said. “Sometimes they can get into something and it turns out to not be so good as they thought and cause damage in other ways.”

Sheri Hegseth, from Alberta, Canada, says she finds the idea of a plane using a battery for power concerning. “I don't really know how far electricity can carry you on a plane when a car can only go a couple of hours. I don't like crashing," Hegseth said.

Aviation analysts argue there will always be a back-up power source. “No one’s going to drain the battery completely until the motor stops turning and then say 'ugh I guess we have a problem.' There will always be reserves,” Mark said.

The aircraft uses a generator powered by jet fuel and two electric battery packs, located in each wing. “The batteries have to be charged before we start and therefore chargers are needed in the airports ...we may either fly with batteries only or fire a small engine to provide extra power to fly the airplane,” Said said.

The challenge they are now trying to overcome is the batteries’ weight - it has to be both light enough for the plane to take off and powerful enough to fly for a long period of time.

“Once we are in the air we turn the engine off, fly exclusively with batteries and land from there,” Said said. He believes they will have the right metrics for the batteries by 2022.

“I think it’s important that we realize we are not going to be seeing United Airlines flying electric airplanes in the next couple of years,” Mark said. “I’d say we probably have a good decade of starts and stop ahead of us before we are really going to find something practical for a large cabin kind of airplane.”

The company is currently working to get the plane certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Its first scheduled test flight will be in the summer of 2019.

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