The Environmental Protection Agency said in June that carbon emissions by airlines contribute to climate change, and new regulations could be ready by 2017. The European Union has started charging some airlines for CO2 emissions.
NASA's research could pave the way, according to Redifer, and its aircraft is scheduled to be ready for flight testing in 18 months.
"What we are looking at with this four passenger aircraft, expecting anywhere form 800 pounds of batteries with takeoff weight of 3000 pounds," he said. "That gives us enough range to prove that we can get this five times energy reduction (over existing jet propulsion)."
Redifer and others admit that the big issue to overcome for electric airplanes, just like electric cars, is battery life.
Aircraft fuel is more efficient since the airplane gets lighter over time as the gas is burned. Electric airplanes will have to haul around large packs of lithium iron batteries, a scenario that has caused aircraft fires in the past and led to warnings by the FAA.
"The idea of an electric plane is attractive," said John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But electric cars can only go a couple hundred miles, and electric planes will have about same range as electric cars."
Hansman and others foresee an electric hybrid drive using a small amount of fuel to generate electricity that powers the electric motors. This, coupled with the steady improvements in battery technology could lead to a real change in transportation, according to Brian German, associate professor of aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech.
In the long run, the combination of electric propulsion and automatic flight controls and self-guided navigation will make flying an aircraft much cheaper and easier. Call it the Uber of airplanes.
"With new technology, the cost drops out the bottom and maybe we open new markets," German said. "If you can reduce the pilot workload and degree of training with autonomy, then you open the possibility for on-demand aviation. The airplane flies to the airport and picks you up and takes you somewhere."