Boeing and Japan's IHI to research environmental fuel cell technology to supply onboard electrical power
Interior of the new Boeing 787: Could onboard lighting one day be powered by regenerative fuel cells? (photo: Boeing)
Wed 10 Mar 2010 – Japanese aero engine manufacturer IHI and Boeing are to jointly carry out research into regenerative fuel cell technology to provide electrical power for airplanes. They will explore the application of regenerative fuel cells, which work much like rechargeable batteries, to power certain airplane electrical systems independently of engine-driven generators, thus reducing the load of the aircraft’s onboard electrical supply and allowing for smaller, lighter power generation systems. This in turn could potentially reduce weight, fuel burn and CO2 emissions. There is a further environmental benefit as the only by-product of regenerative fuel cells is water.
Currently, an aircraft’s engines burn fuel to produce the required thrust and electricity. As electricity is generated in proportion to thrust, when the engines are not at full power – for example, when the airplane is moving slowly on the ground or descending – the amount of electricity produced tends to fall short of demand. Conversely, when climbing or cruising, more electrical power than is required is generated. Regenerative fuel cells use that surplus energy to break water down into oxygen and hydrogen, which is then stored and used to produce electricity when supply falls short.
In this way, regenerative fuel cells can be used to optimize airplane electricity production so that lower demand is placed on engine generators, which in turn can reduce fuel burn.
In the initial stage, it is anticipated that applications will include power for galleys, pumps and lighting. IHI said it expected to produce a prototype regenerative fuel cell for ground testing within two years. It is also considering carrying out in-flight tests using regenerative fuel cells to provide auxiliary power by the end of 2013.
“We can combine IHI’s expertise in regenerative fuel cell technology with Boeing’s technological prowess in the large-scale integration of new concepts, to develop projects that will benefit both companies and the world we live in,” said Boeing Japan President, Mike Denton.
Not only is IHI Japan’s biggest provider of aero-engines, it has considerable expertise in space technology R&D and manufacturing. It has already worked on ground-based fuel cell research, and its subsidiary IHI Aerospace is collaborating with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on regenerative fuel cells as part of the electrical power system of a stratospheric platform airship.
“There is a strong correlation between new technologies needed in the aerospace industry and fuel cell technologies being introduced in the energy and automotive industries,” said Tamotsu Saito, President of IHI’s Aero-Engines and Space Operations. “We look forward to applying our considerable experience in the latter to the next generation of airplanes.”
IHI manufactures small aircraft engines and is also part of the Japanese Aero Engine Corporation consortium, a partner in the multi-national International Aero Engine collaboration that manufactures the IAE V2500 engine for the Airbus A320 family.