What has 14 propellers and zero emissions?

NASA’s latest experimental plane has a big dream and a unique design.

Sporting 14 propellers and long, skinny wings, the all-electric X-57 produces zero emissions.

Nicknamed “Maxwells,” these planes could revolutionize flight. They cost less to operate than conventional models, reduce flight times and dramatically reduce the noisy roar of airports.

Best of all, emission-free electric aircraft would help cut carbon emissions: Commercial aircraft produce 11 percent of U.S. transportation emissions, and 3 percent of all carbon emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Here’s how it works: Twelve small propellers produce lift for takeoff and landing, and then retract to let the two big wingtip propellers power the plane through the air. With this design, NASA scientists say, a Maxwell can attain cruising speed using one-fifth the energy of its predecessors.

You won’t fly one across the ocean … at least not yet. Because Maxwells run on batteries, current technology limits their range to 100 miles. But battery technology’s improving. NASA expects advances will make the next generation lighter and increase its range.

“The X-57 will take the first giant step in opening a new era of aviation,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at the project’s formal announcement on June 17.

Right now, a version of the plane’s crazy wing sits atop a semi-truck. Engineers drive it around a dry lake bed in California to test its performance. Once the team pairs the design with a converted Italian Tecnam P2006T, a light aircraft, it will go airborne.

NASA’s not stopping with the diminutive X-57. Five much bigger X-planes are planned to demonstrate how commercial aviation can reduce fuel consumption, emissions and noise.

The 280 kph X-57 is not the first electric aircraft: The sun-powered Solar Impulse 2, which relies on solar panels in the wings, is currently cruising around the world at about 70 kilometers per hour.