The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced on Friday a project that aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the sky, by integrating an electric powered airplane into a uniquely-designed wing.

The project was announced by Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator at a conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Washington. It is the latest effort made by the agency to create a more efficient and less polluter aviation.

This artist’s concept of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane’s specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. Credit: Electrek

With 14 electric motors turning propellers and all of them integrated into the wings, NASA will test the new propulsion technology using an experimental airplane now designated as the X-57 and nicknamed “Maxwell”, according to a press released made by NASA.

The specific name, X-57, was assigned to the U.S. Air Force, which manages the history-making process of the project. According to NASA, the first of the X-series was the X-1 plane that in 1947 became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound.

“Dozens of X-planes of all shapes, sizes and purposes have since followed, all of them contributing to our stature as the world’s leader in aviation and space technology,” said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “Planes like the X-57, and the others to come, will help us maintain that role.”

Will all the planes be electric powered now?

The project is a defined one limited to certain kinds of aircraft; it will not translate into all-electric cross-country jetliners. However, NASA hopes the technology could be incorporated into smaller, general aviation and commuter aircraft in a near future, as reported by the New York Times.

Unlike some of NASA’s earlier projects, the X-57 will look more like a Cessna futuristic X-planes. Its speed could reach 175 miles per hour; the wings will be skinnier than usual and embedded with the electric motors.

“With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities, which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative, the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” Bolden said according to a press release.

According to Sean Clarke, co-investigator for the project at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, the problem with traditional aircraft design is that people have to size the wings so that they can have a safe takeoff and landing speeds. This causes that the wings tend to end up bigger than the pilot needs it for cruise flight.

The X-57’s wings are being designed to perform in a more efficient manner during cruise flight and will be powered by two 60-kilowatt electric motors at the wingtips that spin five-foot-wide propellers.


NASA has already purchased an Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine four-seat aircraft that will become the new X-57 electric powered plane. One of the first steps that will be taken by NASA is changing the gasoline-powered motors for the electric ones.

The process of changing the motors will take approximately a year, and an additional one or two will be needed as well to improve and incorporate the new specially-designed wings, according to Clarke.

Energy efficiency at cruise altitude using X-56 technology could benefit travelers by reducing flight times, fuel usage, as well as reducing overall operational costs for small aircraft by as much as 40 percent.

On a normal basis, to cut costs and fuel efficiency planes usually have to fly slower than it is able, but electric propulsion virtually eliminates the penalty for cruising at higher speeds, NASA wrote in its press release.

Also, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the electric motors will produce a less noisy surrounding compared to the conventional piston engines. The electric propulsion technology is expected to decrease aircraft noise and make it less annoying to the general public.

Unprecedented carbon dioxide release

As technology advances so does carbon dioxide emissions, although some new findings are trying to reduce this contaminator factors. However, a recent study determined that the present carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years.

In the present, humans are releasing carbon dioxide ten times faster than the last similar event, which leaves experts without a historical analog to guide predictions for climate changes and its repercussions.

The Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was a mysterious event that led to the release of the highest concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ever known, even higher that they are right now, as reported by the Washington Post.

As a repercussion, the planet proceeded to warm rapidly, at least in geological terms and caused significant deaths among some marine organism followed due to high acidification of the oceans. The changes were about 5 degrees Celsius warmer from pole to pole.

The difference among the PETM and the present is that the past event latest over 4,000 years to reach troubling levels, but now the emissions go even higher. The new study estimates that during the PETM the volume of carbon entered the atmosphere was between 2,000 and 4,000 million tons, only about 1 million tons of carbon emitted per year.

According to current data, scientists said that right now humans are emitting about 10 billion tons annually, an emission that speeds the whole global warming process and leaves researchers without any possible prediction based in past times.

“Given that the current rate of carbon release is unprecedented throughout the Cenozoic, we have effectively entered an era of a no-analogue state, which represents a fundamental challenge to constraining future climate projections,” concluded researchers from the study published in Nature Geoscience.

Source: NASA