Is Elon Musk's supersonic Tesla electric plane idea possible?
Elon Musk has more ideas about transportation using electricity. In a recent interview, which seemed more like an outlined discussion than a true inquisition, the rock star of automotive manufacturing revealed two more ideas that involve using electricity to move people. The first is not that hard to envision. A pickup truck powered by electricity. We will address that in another story. The second, is a real head scratcher for those with any engineering background. It is a supersonic, vertical take of airplane – powered of course by electricity.
Before we begin, check our yesterday's story if you are not current on Tesla's stock drop, Q3 loss, and fires in 3 Model S cars. The link as the full interview as well as a summary of this week's big Tesla news.
Let’s look at his airplane idea proposed in an interview with the New York Time Deal Book this week. The interview turned towards air travel, which leads us to believe that the questions were submitted in advance. In any case, the interviewer spoke about Musk’s opinion of the 787 battery fires and from there segued into what planes Musk liked and why. It turns out Elon likes the 747 calling it fast and aerodynamically efficient. Saying “I do think there is an interesting opportunity to create a supersonic, electric, vertical take-off and landing jet. I think that would be really great.” Expanding on where this idea came from Musk said “Well the Concord was canceled. I was like, well that’s sad. Now there’s no supersonic transport. And is the future getting worse? It bothers me when the future is getting worse, so that is where the supersonic plane thing came from.”
Having studied mechanical engineering, and taken some limited courses in aerodynamics and thermodynamics at the undergraduate level, this sounds just kooky to me. In order to move an airframe through the air past the sound barrier it needs to create a huge push in the opposite direction via the engines. Using only electricity, rather than expanding gases, it is hard to envision accelerating turbine blades to the point that they are well past supersonic and compressing air in a way it would then be able to move a huge structure. Maybe electricity could somehow be used to convert liquid phase water to the superheated gas phase and thus push the plane past supersonic. Sort of an inverse steam generator. Interestingly, Musk said in the same interview he thinks rockets (as in space travel rockets) would never be electric, and thinks steam power used in the past is quaint. If we have readers who can tell us how an electric plane might work, please weigh in below. Let’s set aside the energy density issue related to the batteries for now.
Musk is currently the big thinker in the room, if you consider the world the room. Had he not already created a new currency, a new type of luxury car, and also a spaceship we would laugh at this idea. However, we are learning to take his ideas more seriously as time goes on. What do you think of a supersonic electric “jet” plane? Lark, or possible workable idea?
Still image courtesy of Youtube.com and AviationExplorer