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Airbus Makes Channel Crossing With Prototype Electric Plane

Airbus Group SE completed its first flight of an electric plane across the English Channel on Friday, recreating a century-old journey in the hope of opening flying’s next technological frontier.

The two-seat E-Fan demonstrator plane powered exclusively by lithium batteries took 36 minutes to fly from Lydd in southern England to Calais, France. The flight mirrored the July 1909 flight by Louis Blériot in his fragile wood and fabric model XI—the first aviator to cross the Channel.

Friday’s demonstration is part of a flurry of activity—including two separate test flights in recent days—aimed at propelling electric flying out of its infancy. It comes as the commercial and general aviation industry is under increasing pressure to make flying more efficient and environmentally friendly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in June declared carbon emissions by airlines a contributor to climate change, laying the foundation for regulations that could be ready by early 2017. The European Union already has started charging some airlines for carbon-dioxide emissions.

The airline industry has committed itself to achieving carbon-neutral growth by 2020, and, by 2050, to reduce its emissions to 2005 levels.

Much of the effort has focused on using new engines, lighter and more aerodynamic materials to build more efficient aircraft and on biofuel technology that can mix processed cooking oil or plant oils with regular jet fuel. But backers of electric flight are hoping technology being tested now will, in the decades to come, open the door for even cleaner and quieter 100-seat airliners that can fly as high, fast and far as today’s regional aircraft.

“An electric plane is cleaner, less complex and it is quieter,” said Paul Robertson, a lecturer in electrical engineering at the University of Cambridge.

The university last year began flight-testing a single-seat hybrid-electric single-seat plane, which augments the electric motor with a piston engine, and was developed in conjunction with Boeing Co.

The efforts heated up this month. A private pilot named Hugues Duval unexpectedly thwarted Airbus’s aim to be the first to cross the Channel in a battery-powered aircraft by making the hop the evening prior in his home-built, single-seat Cri-Cri plane. Just days before, the single-seat Solar Impulse 2 made the longest-ever solar-powered flight, cruising nonstop to Hawaii from Japan as part of an around-the-world journey.

Electric motors weigh the same as turbine engines, but are 2½ times more efficient at converting stored energy into mechanical power and up to six times better compared with piston engines used in general aviation, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Just as the automobile and internal-combustion engine made possible the Wright brothers’ first flights, new batteries developed for consumer electronics and electric cars are making possible a new era of flying machines.

“We’re riding their wave in terms of their battery technology,” said Mark Moore, principal investigator for NASA’s experimental electric propulsion aircraft project.

With the E-Fan Channel crossing, “the public is going to see that the range constraints that batteries have imposed on electric vehicles are starting to come off,” said Mr. Moore. The E-Fan strings together lithium batteries weighing a combined 368 pounds.

Airbus subsidiary VoltAir SAS aims to have two-seat E-Fan 2.0 planes flying in 2017, which will be an evolution of today’s prototype. Construction of a new factory in Pau in southwest France begins in 2016. A four-seat hybrid model with a range extender powered by traditional fuel will follow in 2019.

Airbus said it is investing €20 million ($22 million) in the project. It is targeting pilot-training schools as initial customers, including L’Ecole Nationale de l’Aviation Civile in Toulouse, France. That school has already signed on.

Vital technologies have matured since the E-Fan first took to the skies in March 2014. Jean Botti, Airbus chief technical officer, said electric storage capacity to keep the motors running has increased 60% as the lithium-ion polymer batteries have become more efficient. Endurance has increased from a mere 25 minutes to more than 55 minutes, he said.

Pilot and designer Didier Esteyne gestures before taking off in the Airbus Group E-Fan electric aircraft, during an attempt to fly across the channel from Lydd Airport in southeast England, Britain July 10, 2015.

In the U.S., Mr. Moore is six months into a three year, $15-million research project to modify a four-seat general-aviation aircraft with new wings mounted with as many as 20 small electric propeller engines. That aircraft is due to fly in 2017.

Electric aircraft still face regulatory hurdles. No certification standards in the U.S. or Europe exist today for electric planes. The E-Fan aims to help establish such standards in Europe, while NASA’s electric plane—likely to be dubbed the X-57—will aid the Federal Aviation Administration in setting initial standards around 2017, said Mr. Moore.

Over the long term, Airbus envisions hybrid technology to fly longer and provide a springboard to build regional planes carrying 100 passengers, said Mr. Botti. The hybrid plane would take off and land using electric engines. In flight, when the battery has drained, a biofuel-powered motor would recharge power cells.

Mr. Moore said NASA is collaborating with Hyannis, Mass.-based commuter operator Cape Air, which envisions a nine-passenger electric aircraft with 30% lower operating costs, capable of flying in its network by 2022 to replace its fleet of aging Cessna aircraft. The airline doesn’t “need any more range than current batteries provide,” as its longest flight is 220 nautical miles, he said.