Aircraft

NASA backs development of cryogenic hydrogen system to power all-electric aircraft

NASA backs development of cryo...
Artist's rendering of an advanced commercial transport aircraft concept utilizing CHEETA systems
Artist's rendering of an advanced commercial transport aircraft concept utilizing CHEETA systems
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Artist's rendering of an advanced commercial transport aircraft concept utilizing CHEETA systems
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Artist's rendering of an advanced commercial transport aircraft concept utilizing CHEETA systems
Phillip Ansel, Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering
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Phillip Ansel, Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering
Concept sketch of a fully electric aircraft platform that uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen as an energy storage method
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Concept sketch of a fully electric aircraft platform that uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen as an energy storage method

The University of Illinois has announced that NASA is underwriting a project to develop a cryogenic hydrogen fuel cell system for powering all-electric aircraft. Funded by a three-year, US$6 million contract, the Center for Cryogenic High-Efficiency Electrical Technologies for Aircraft (CHEETA) will investigate the technology needed to produce a practical all-electric design to replace conventional fossil fuel propulsion systems.

The jet engine in all its variations has revolutionized air travel, but with airline profit margins running wafer thin in these ecologically conscious times, there's a lot of interest in moving away from aircraft powered by fossil fuels and toward emission-free electric propulsion systems that aren't dependent on petroleum and its volatile prices.

The CHEETA project is a consortium of eight institutions that include the Air Force Research Laboratory, Boeing Research and Technology, General Electric Global Research, Ohio State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Arkansas, the University of Dayton Research Institute, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Although the project is still in its conceptual stage, the researchers have a firm vision of the technology and its potential.

Concept sketch of a fully electric aircraft platform that uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen as an energy storage method
Concept sketch of a fully electric aircraft platform that uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen as an energy storage method

"Essentially, the program focuses on the development of a fully electric aircraft platform that uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen as an energy storage method," says Phillip Ansell, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Urbana-Champaign who is the project's principal investigator. "The hydrogen chemical energy is converted to electrical energy through a series of fuel cells, which drive the ultra-efficient electric propulsion system. The low temperature requirements of the hydrogen system also provide opportunities to use superconducting, or lossless, energy transmission and high-power motor systems.

"It's similar to how MRIs work, magnetic resonance imaging. However, these necessary electrical drivetrain systems do not yet exist, and the methods for integrating electrically driven propulsion technologies into an aircraft platform have not yet been effectively established. This program seeks to address this gap and make foundational contributions in technologies that will enable fully electric aircraft of the future."

The team points out that though progress has been made, there are many basic problems that need to be overcome before we see such electric aircraft taking to the skies.

"Advances in recent years on non-cryogenic machines and drives have brought electric propulsion of commercial regional jets closer to reality, but practical cryogenic systems remain the 'holy grail' for large aircraft because of their unmatched power density and efficiency," says Associate Professor Kiruba Haran of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois. "The partnerships that have been established for this project position us well to address the significant technical hurdles that exist along this path."

Source: University of Illinois

9 comments
VincentWolf
It's time will come. Fossil fuels are a disaster created by mankind and big oil's insatiable greed.
guzmanchinky
Cue the naysayers... I think these sorts of leaps of what could be possible are amazing. With technology learning from technology we will see things that make even the last few decades of progress seem tame.
Nobody
I always wonder if these people have ever actually worked with hydrogen? Being explosive at any mixture from 10%-90% with air, it is quite dangerous. Being stored at super cold temperatures has its own dangers. It can cause embrittlement of metals over time which is a bad thing for aircraft construction. Once again what is theoretically possible and what is practical collide.
Harkova
There are many problems and potential problems to be overcome before hydrogen powered aircraft become a commercial reality. It is encouraging that a serious start to getting to this reality has begun.
Troublesh00ter
I'm a big fan of hydrogen, either compressed gaseous or liquid, coupled with highly efficient fuel cells, as a mechanism for generating electric power for applications such as this. For those who which to cite problems producing or containing hydrogen or the efficiency of fuel cells, my answer is simple: turn the R&D gang loose on the problem, give them some time, and watch as those questions get answered.
TomLeeM
I think that is both really cool and really green.
Rossasaurus
Green, Green, Green; could be Green depending on Hydrogen source process. In CA they are pushing ‘Clean, Green Hydrogen’, Chevron that is; using fracked natural gas to produce Hydrogen ain’t green, sorry Chevron. And we can use solar and clean, pure water to produce H, but ...CA, so there’s that.
JDC1
Just like hydrogen fuel cells for cars, this is a great idea. The problem is building out the infrastructure. You would have to have a huge hydrogen production or storage set up at each airport. The infrastructure is what has prevented fuel cell cars from taking off. Hopefully, some dedicated smart guys/gals will figure this out and make it happen.
Frank Picabia
Hydrogen is explosive and dangerous. Yes, totally unlike gasoline and jet fuel isn't it? We need something better than batteries for range. You want a plane to fly longer than one hour and not take 5 hours to recharge. Hydrogen fuel cells are a mature technology which have been around for decades, used on the space shuttle for example. The only challenge is storage space, and it seems this is what they are taking on.