It’s electric: Physics prof builds experimental plane

Physics professor Dennis Jacobs poses next to the Electric Dragon at the Detroit Lakes airport. His niece, a St. Paul artist, painted the dragon.
Physics professor Dennis Jacobs poses next to the Electric Dragon at the Detroit Lakes airport. His niece, a St. Paul artist, painted the dragon.

Although the view from his deck in rural Becker County is exquisite, Dennis Jacobs prefers a different perspective. He’d much rather explore the lakes and forest from above, flying “wherever the wind blows.”

If his latest project succeeds, the retiring MSUM physics professor of 27 years will be able to enjoy the landscape from an electric airplane he built himself.

Jacobs, who helped start the university’s fledgling sustainability program, has spent more than a year transforming a lightweight 1931 Pietenpol into a plane that will run on lithium ion batteries and an electric golf cart motor. Along the way, he’s had students help research the best motors and batteries to use for the machine, which is housed alongside his two other planes in a hangar at the Detroit Lakes airport.

“Really, all that’s left is to put the batteries in,” said Jacobs, 69, before sitting in the small seat of the red Electric Dragon for the first time, then heading back to the cozy Wething Field terminal for the local Experimental Airport Association’s October potluck. “I should be flying it by next spring, early summer if no major changes are needed.”

For Jacobs, a degree-wielding rocket scientist, the project isn’t just a way to feed his backyard engineer mania; it’s a way to be a good environmental steward. In the carbon dioxide-to-oxygen converting woods, he’s built a home with local lumber that includes a large black panel to capture solar energy and an indoor pool to store it. Sometimes he tools around in an electric-powered Volkswagen bus he converted in an earlier project.

Jacobs and his wife, MSUM sociology professor Karen Branden, “want to make our house carbon neutral and our hobbies carbon neutral.”

The main obstacle to electric airplanes has been the weight of the batteries needed to power them. In the past few years, batteries have advanced enough to make electric a viable option for at least a short flight, and Jacobs said “we’re right on the cusp of getting much more efficient batteries.”

Other people have built electric airplanes – NASA and Google teamed up for a 2011 contest – but Jacobs said that his $14,000 plane ($10,000 just for the batteries) is the least expensive he’s heard of.

“There’s no reason for recreational planes to be using gasoline and putting carbon in the air,” he said. “I envision a day when most recreational planes are electric, and we have huge photovoltaic systems charging the batteries at airports.”

One of Jacobs’ students, physics and energy sustainability junior Ben LeMay, helped the professor research which batteries would be most effective. They settled upon lithium ion phosphate, LeMay said, because the batteries pack the most energy with the least weight.

During a fly-in event at the Detroit Lakes airport this summer, LeMay helped explain the electric plane project to a curious crowd of about 400. He said he’d be sure to be there for the maiden flight of the Electric Dragon.

“A lot of people are skeptical about electric vehicles in general,” LeMay said (he’s heard the joke, “that’s going to take a long extension cord,” more than a few times). “But as battery technology improves so does the range and everything. I’m excited for that …

“I’m fairly confident it’ll be up and running.”

So is Jacobs, although he insists he’s not going to take any risks with his life.

“We’ll be testing it quite extensively before we take it into the air,” Jacobs said. “I want to make that perfectly clear. It’s going to be a gradual thing. It’s going to take some adjusting and testing.”

If it does take flight, he expects the Electric Dragon to fly 50 to 60 miles per hour for up to 90 minutes – enough for a lakes country pleasure tour. Besides being carbon friendly, the peace that comes with flying is the point, Jacobs said, and without the hum of an internal combustion engine, it’ll be like “floating on carpet up there.”

At the Experimental Aircraft Association meeting in the terminal, group members talked planes over coffee and chicken. One member, 70-year-old Ted Kiebke, a career Navy pilot, shared his plans to power a plane with a Mercury outboard motor.

“It’s quite the rig,” he said.

Another member, airport namesake Doc Wething, said he never imagined people would be flying planes with boat or electric motors when he start serving on the local airport commission more than 50 years ago.

“That’s the nice thing – everything is new,” Wething said. “There’s something new going on in aviation all the time.”


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