As the world strives to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, the aviation industry faces the challenge of reducing its environmental impact. MIT engineers have made significant progress by successfully creating a one-megawatt electric motor, a crucial development towards realizing large electric planes. The motor has undergone component testing and calculations, proving its capability to generate one megawatt of output.
Current attempts at electric planes are limited to smaller aircraft with motors that can only generate a few hundred kilowatts of power. To address this limitation, MIT engineers aimed to design a one-megawatt electric motor for larger aircraft that demand higher power output.
Understanding the complexity of creating a megawatt electric motor requires knowledge of its functioning. Typically, electric motors utilize electrical energy to create a magnetic field by passing current through copper coils. A magnet placed near the coils spins in alignment with the generated magnetic field, propelling a fan or propeller. Larger copper coils are required to generate more power, resulting in increased heat generation. Cooling elements become necessary, further adding to the motor’s weight, which poses challenges for aviation applications.
The MIT engineers devised a motor design featuring a high-speed rotor with magnets of varying polarity orientations and a compact, low-loss stator filled with intricate copper windings. They also developed a distributed power electronics system using custom-built circuit boards that precisely regulate currents through the copper windings at high frequencies. These circuit boards are closely integrated with the motor to minimize transmission loss, while an integrated heat exchanger ensures efficient air cooling during operation. Component testing confirmed the motor’s ability to generate one-megawatt output.
In the upcoming phase, the researchers will assemble and test the motor as a complete unit. They express confidence that the motor will be suitable for powering regional aircraft, with potential future aircraft designs incorporating multiple motors along the wing. The motor can be powered by batteries, fuel cells, or even in conjunction with jet engines in hybrid propulsion systems.
Zoltan Spakovszky, the project lead at MIT, highlights the significance of megawatt-class motors for greening aviation, irrespective of the energy carrier used. Whether batteries, hydrogen, ammonia, or sustainable aviation fuel, these motors play a crucial role in achieving environmentally friendly air transportation.
This breakthrough in electric motor technology brings us closer to a sustainable future for aviation, enabling the development of larger electric planes and contributing to the industry’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions.