With demand for air transport doubling every 15 years, the global airline industry will require nearly 30,000 new aircraft (of more than 100 seats) by 2032.
Simultaneously, the dual factors of high jet fuel costs and industry commitments to halve 2005 CO2 emissions levels by 2050 are driving the search for alternative solutions to fossil-fuel based propulsion and energy sources.
Airbus has identified hydrogen fuel cells as a future, emissions-free substitute for small gas turbine auxiliary power units (APUs), which are used for generating onboard electrical power and heat while the aircraft is on the ground. Replacing the fossil-fuel powered APUs with hydrogen fuel cells would help to achieve the goals of emission-free and low-noise aircraft operation.
The latest chapter in the quest to make commercial air transport more environmentally friendly and economically sustainable was opened at the beginning of September with an agreement between Airbus and South Africa’s National Aerospace Centre to jointly fund research by Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) into the application of fuel cells in airliners. The initial three-year project will be undertaken by HySA Systems Competence Centre at its University of the Western Cape research facility.
“This fuel cell project is the latest element of Airbus’s Research and Technology initiative with South Africa, which was launched in 2006 and involves collaboration with several of the country’s universities and research institutes,” said Dale King, Airbus’ senior manager, emerging technologies and concepts. “It underlines our commitment to South Africa, which is a significant market, hosts some of our most important suppliers and is a vital knowledge partner for Airbus.”
Apart from emission-free and low-noise aircraft operation, fuel cells would reduce the overall weight of aircraft, leading to lower fuel burn and operating costs together with further reduced carbon emissions during flight. As by-products, hydrogen fuel cells could enable aircraft to generate their own water supplies. They would also have a safety benefit through their ability to generate inerting gas used to reduce flammability levels in aircraft fuel tanks and for suppressing any cargo hold fires.
Airbus has already performed test flights involving fuel cells to power individual emergency power systems, but the knowledge and technology maturation has yet to reach a level to permit the complete replacement of the electrical power systems with a multifunctional fuel cell. The project with HySA Systems Competence Centre will go some way towards closing that gap.