DALLAS — Airbus has disclosed that it is working on a fuel cell engine that runs on hydrogen. The propulsion system would outfit Airbus’ ZEROe planes, which are slated to go into service in 2035.
Airbus is in the process of installing liquid hydrogen tanks and distribution systems on its A380 MSN1 flight test aircraft. The manufacturer hopes to begin ground and flight testing of the fuel cell engine architecture on its ZEROe demonstrator by the middle of the decade.
Instead of using combustion to produce electricity, fuel cells—first developed by Sir William Grove in 1838—generate electricity using an electrochemical reaction.
Fuel cells differ from batteries in that they need an ongoing supply of fuel and oxygen whereas batteries get their chemical energy from materials that are already within the battery. Therefore, fuel cells can continuously generate electricity for as long as fuel and oxygen are available.
The only by-products from fuel cells that use hydrogen to directly generate electricity are heat and water.
The Power of Hydrogen
Because hydrogen can be produced from renewable energy sources without emitting any carbon dioxide, and because water is one of its main byproducts, it has been identified by Airbus as one of the most promising alternatives for powering a zero-emission aircraft.
Hydrogen can be used as an aircraft propulsion fuel in two different ways. First via hydrogen combustion in a gas turbine, and second, by using fuel cells to convert hydrogen into electricity in order to power a propeller engine. A hydrogen gas turbine can also be coupled with fuel cells instead of batteries in a hybrid-electric architecture.
Airbus also says that hydrogen fuel cells increase their power output when stacked together, allowing for scalability. In addition, an engine powered by hydrogen fuel cells produces zero NOx emissions or contrails thereby offering additional decarbonization benefits.
Airbus has been researching the potential of fuel cell propulsion systems in the aviation industry for some time. As a joint venture with ElringKlinger, a company with more than 20 years of experience as a supplier of fuel cell systems and components, Airbus established Aerostack in October 2020.
In December 2020, Airbus unveiled its pod concept, which featured six detachable fuel cell propeller propulsion systems.
Comments from Airbus
“Fuel cells are a potential solution to help us achieve our zero-emission ambition and we are focused on developing and testing this technology to understand if it is feasible and viable for a 2035 entry-into-service of a zero-emission aircraft,” said Glenn Llewellyn, VP Zero-Emission Aircraft, Airbus.
The holy grail of aircraft propulsion is to provide power without any emissions. One of the most promising candidates is the hydrogen fuel cell.Airbus
Mr. Llewellyn added, “At scale, and if the technology targets were achieved, fuel cell engines may be able to power a one-hundred-passenger aircraft with a range of approximately 1,000 nautical miles.”
“By continuing to invest in this technology we are giving ourselves additional options that will inform our decisions on the architecture of our future ZEROe aircraft, the development of which we intend to launch in the 2027-2028 timeframe,” said the Airbus VP.
To find out more about Airbus’ fuel cell engine and demonstrator, click here.
Featured image: Airbus