Airbus joins South African project to research the potential for replacing APUs with fuel cell technology
Wed 3 Sept 2014 – A three-year South African project is underway to research the use of fuel cell technology in commercial airliners in the search for alternative solutions to fossil fuel based propulsion and energy sources. Jointly funded by Airbus and South Africa’s National Aerospace Centre, the project will be undertaken by the Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) Systems Competence Centre at its University of the Western Cape research facility. Airbus says it has identified hydrogen fuel cells as a future, emissions-free substitute for an aircraft’s Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a small gas turbine engine that generates on-board electrical power and heat while the aircraft is on the ground. The aircraft manufacturer has already performed test flights involving fuel cells to power individual emergency power systems and is working on the technology that could permit the complete replacement of the electrical power systems with a multi-functional fuel cell.
Airbus says the demand for air travel is doubling every 15 years, leading to a requirement for nearly 30,000 new commercial aircraft by 2032. Almost every airliner designed and built since the 1950s has been equipped with an APU located in the tail cone section of the rear fuselage.
Fuel cells would also lower the overall weight of aircraft, leading to further reduced fuel burn and carbon emissions during flight. As by-products, hydrogen fuel cells could enable aircraft to generate their own water supplies and 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. They could also potentially replace heavy batteries and conventional fuel tank inerting systems.
The project will be carried out at postgraduate level and will identify the factors influencing fuel cell performance, ageing and monitoring, and will then consider how these could be adopted for use in aircraft.
HySA is a 15-year programme that was set up in 2007 in a bid to increase South Africa’s research efforts in the field of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. There are three HySA Centres of Competence, which are hosted by the country’s leading universities and science councils.
Besides carrying out research, HySA also builds hydrogen fuel cells for small ground vehicles and can manufacture most of the crucial components. HySA’s advantage, explained an Airbus spokesman, is its relatively easy access to locally-mined essential materials, particularly platinum group metals and mineral sands that give fuel cells their catalytic properties.
“Although fuel cell technology for land vehicles has rapidly matured, the new research with Airbus and the National Aerospace Centre is aimed at gaining an understanding of how hydrogen fuel cells could perform over an aircraft’s service life while subjected to the harsh and rapidly changing climatic and environmental regimes that commercial jetliners operate in,” said HySA Systems Director Professor Bruno Pollet.
Hosted at the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Aerospace Centre was established in 2006 to engage with government, industry, academia and research institutions – locally and internationally – to promote competitiveness through research and skills development in South Africa’s aerospace sector.
Its Director, Philip Haupt, said hydrogen fuel cells technology was set to become a “game-changer” in aerospace. “This project provides global visibility of South Africa’s expertise in the field,” he said. “In addition, by leading the project that will further the understanding and maturation of hydrogen fuel cell technology, South Africa will be able to place its advanced manufacturing sector in a prime position to take advantage of the inevitable opportunities that will emerge.”
For Airbus, the project is the latest element of its South African Research and Technology initiative launched in 2006, which involves collaboration with several of the country’s universities and research institutes.