Intelligent Energy

WheelTug turns jets into electric hybrids

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WheelTug, a company based in Gibraltar, has developed tech that reduces an airplane's fuel costs, cuts emissions and even helps prevent delays.

WheelTug has developed tech that temporarily turns airplanes into electric hybrids, helping to save fuel, cut emissions and help keep arrivals and departures on time. And it might soon be found in El Al Israel Airlines' Boeing 737s.

WheelTug announced this week a tentative deal to install an electric motor into the Israeli carrier's Boeing 737s that will eliminate the need to use engines or a tug for both pushing back from the gate and taxiing down the runway. WheelTug conducted numerous tests of the system in 2010 at the Prague airport. The deal with the Israeli carrier comes as the company awaits certification of technology from both American and European regulators. The company expects to begin deliveries of certified production models by 2013.

The electric drive system, which uses high-performance electric motors, are installed in the nose gear wheels of an airplane. The motors are driven by electricity generated from the plane's auxiliary power unit, which runs when the main engines are off to keep the lights on and the plane ventilated.

Most fuel is used while the airplane is in flight. However, switching to electric power while pushing away from the gate and taxiing down the runway does provide some savings. According to the Gibraltar-based company, a typical 737 consumes between 17 and 25 pounds of fuel per minute -- or between two and three gallons a minute -- while idling.

The company said fuel savings of between one to two gallons per minute can be expected with the electric drive system. That translates to about $100 savings for a typical 25-minute round trip taxi time. There are other reductions as well from not using engines to push back from the gate and maintenance savings. In all, WheelTug estimates the total savings can be $405 per flight. It's not much compared to an airliner's overall fuel costs. But it can add up to more than $554,000 in savings per aircraft per year.

Check the video for a demonstration on how WheelTug's tech works.

Photo: Flickr user eisenbahner, CC 2.0

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure