Wisconsin Research May Someday Bring You A Hybrid-Powered Air Taxi

Sep 30, 2020

The U.S. Army is giving UW-Madison $11.4 million to help develop a new type of airplane engine that could someday power everything from drones to commercial air taxis.

Hybrid-electric engines already exist in some cars. But scientists say despite aircraft engines being much different, hybrids hold promise in the skies as well.

UW-Madison mechanical engineering professor David Rothamer is principal investigator for the project. He says there are multiple fuels that could work in a modified airplane engine.

“The big-term goal would be to run gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, other renewable fuels — potentially like ethanol,” Rothamer told WUWM.

Rothamer says along the way, the hope is to make the aircraft engines more efficient and less polluting. He says potentially, there are different levels of hybridization, ranging from adding an electrically-assisted turbocharger to increase power, all the way to a more complete system that would allow recovery of some energy, as happens with hybrid cars.

"You might be able to recover energy when you're descending in an aircraft, when you're trying to slow the aircraft down," Rothamer said.

An Army lab that’s part of the Combat Capabilities Development Command is partly interested in the hybrid engines for use in drones or other aircraft needed in conflict zones. The Army says in some locations, jet fuel is expensive and logistically challenging.

But Rothamer says there's also growing investment in air taxis, very small planes that could zip well-to-do commuters above congested highways. He says widespread production of hybrid engines for aircraft could be five to 10 years away.