NASA’s recent activities have been largely unknown to the public since the Apollo moon missions. While we are aware of its contributions like Tang and space blankets, we have limited knowledge of its recent endeavors.
NASA is dedicated to advancing airplanes and exploring alternative fuels to minimize emissions during flight. Electric vehicles powered by batteries and electricity are more efficient than traditional cars with internal combustion engines. However, the weight and size of batteries pose challenges for aeronautical engineers.
However, imagine if batteries could provide two or three times more power than current lithium-ion batteries, without the risk of flammable electrolytes. This notion of battery-powered air travel is important for airline executives seeking to reduce emissions and those interested in commercial air taxis. NASA’s latest developments are significant for both groups.
The SABERS Program
Under its Solid-state Architecture Batteries for Enhanced Rechargeability and Safety (SABERS) program, NASA has been researching battery-powered air travel. They have achieved remarkable progress beyond the capabilities of lithium-ion batteries. The sodium selenium prototype battery developed by NASA has an energy density of 500 watt-hours per kilogram, approximately double that of conventional lithium-ion batteries.
Aircraft require substantial power for takeoff. While lithium-ion batteries historically discharged power faster than solid-state batteries, the SABERS researchers, in collaboration with partners from Georgia Tech, have discovered methods to enhance the discharge rate. This has resulted in a larger battery “bucket” that can be rapidly emptied when needed.
Furthermore, innovations by the SABERS team have made the battery bucket up to 40% lighter. Their sodium selenium battery cells can be stacked without protective casing, enabling more energy storage in a given space. This is advantageous for fitting batteries into the aircraft structure and reduces the size and weight of cooling systems.
The solid-state sodium selenium batteries developed by NASA can withstand higher temperatures and are less affected by rapid pressure changes during flights. These characteristics are beneficial for electric flight advocates.
However, cost remains a significant consideration. Testing protocols for new components used in commercial aircraft are more stringent than those for regular vehicles. The cost of adding batteries to passenger vehicles may be prohibitive, but spreading the cost over thousands of flights may make economic sense for airlines and air taxi companies.
Regarding air taxis, two designs are currently being considered. United Airlines supports winged aircraft that require less power to remain airborne at cruising altitude. On the other hand, Archer Aviation is exploring enlarged drones that need constant high power usage, resulting in higher power consumption and shorter range.
NASA’s work extends beyond rockets and space stations. A significant portion of its efforts is dedicated to practical transportation solutions unrelated to space tourism. The prospect of futuristic flying robotaxis, which can transport people above congested areas, represents a transportation revolution that may seem like science fiction. NASA plays a crucial role in making this innovative mode of transportation a reality.