WASHINGTON, June 17 (UPI) -- The U.S. National Aeronaitucs and Space Administration on Friday said it is working to develop a small airplane that is entirely free of fossil fuels and might foretell a slimmer, more efficient version of travel of the future.
NASA showed off the prototype X-57 at a conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Washington, D.C.
"The X-57 will take the first giant step in opening a new era of aviation," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.
The X-57, nicknamed "Maxwell," signals that the aerospace industry is getting more serious about the potential of electric aircraft, but officials said even though greater breakthroughs are making such concepts possible, it's unlikely we will fly an all-electric commercial jetliner in any of our lifetimes.
The project's promise for small airplane travel, however, is real.
One specific detail of the X-57 is that it features smaller wings than current aircraft do. NASA said narrower wings are more efficient during cruise flight, and the X-57 is powered by two 60-kilowatt electric motors at the wingtips that spin five-foot-wide propellers.
For takeoffs and landings, a dozen smaller motors power two-foot propellers which create air flow over the wings to generate more lift. In flight, those smaller propellers are tucked away.
The X-57 is one of several aviation projects NASA is working on. Another includes a modern supersonic passenger jet, similar to the Concorde, but without the noisy sonic boom.
Boeing intended to produce a supersonic passenger jet in the early 1970s, which was to be called the 2707, but cost overruns and design difficulties ultimately led them to drop the project in favor of developing the 747 jumbo jetliner.
"Talking about going around the world in six hours or going from Dubai in New York in an hour. That's absolutely incredible," Bolden said.