NASA Langley researchers propelling air travel into the future with electric propulsion tech

NASA's X-57 Maxwell
Posted at 8:03 AM, Dec 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-08 08:49:35-05

HAMPTON, Va. - The next generation of aviation is on its way and local engineers are helping it get off the ground.

NASA's Langley Research Center is working with other NASA locations on a project called the X-57 Maxwell, an experimental airplane flown exclusively with electric-propulsion technology.


The X-57 is currently in ground testing at Armstrong Flight Research Center in California with test flights scheduled to begin next year.

"So we can prove that electrical system in-flight," said Nick Borer, Advanced Concepts Group Lead at NASA Langley, who's working on the project.

Once it's proven using a traditional wing, Borer says NASA will test the system with a more efficient, modified wing with 14 battery-powered propellers, 12 of which will be used only for takeoff and landing.

"Then we turn off the motors and the propellers actually fold back so that way there's a lot less air resistance," he told News 3.

In 2020, the propeller system was tested in wind tunnels at NASA Langley. Borer says small businesses have helped the project along the way.

"[The test stand in the wind tunnel] was made by a small business right in Hampton," he said. "The prime contractor for X-57 is a small business out in California."

Borer says the hope is to make the technology available by the late 2020s, but it can only scale up to a certain size aircraft.

That's where another NASA project comes in called the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD).

For this project, Langley researchers are once again working with other centers to make it happen, as well as larger companies, with a goal of creating hybrid-electric power systems to propel aircraft as large as Boeing 737s used for regional travel.

Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration

In September, NASA awarded two companies, GE Aviation and MagniX, a combined $253.4 million to help mature Electrified Aircraft Propulsion (EAP) technologies.

Gaudy Bezos-O'Connor has been at Langley for more than 30 years. As Project Manager for the EPFD, she's excited about what's coming out of partnerships with other NASA centers and companies.

"We are all working towards bringing forth maturing technologies that will enable the future for a more economically-sustainable fleet of airplanes for the world to use," she told News 3.

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Her deputy project manager, Ralph Jansen out of NASA's Glenn Research Center, says working with others to solve seemingly unachievable is one of his favorite parts of working at NASA.

"You can take an idea like this electric aircraft that nobody thought was gonna happen ten years ago and find a bunch of people to collaborate with," he said.

NASA says the hope is to introduce EPFD technologies to U.S. aviation fleets by 2035.