Fuel cells fly


Airbus proves fuel cells can power onboard ICT and avionics, and the move may have ground applications in power-hungry SA.Aircraft builder Airbus has successfully powered an A320 jetliner`s backup hydraulic and electric power systems in-flight using a fuel cell system, it says.

The test was conducted earlier this month and forms part of the aviation giant`s overall plans for an eco-efficient aviation industry and can lead to the expanded use of fuel cells on aircraft and on the ground.

“Fuel cells offer tremendous potential environmental benefits and operational savings,” says Patrick Gavin, Airbus executive VP, engineering. “This is another example of Airbus providing leadership for an eco-efficient industry, one which creates value with less environmental impact.”

He adds that the company is supporting ongoing research to evaluate the potential use and environmental benefits of fuel cell technology and zero emissions power generation in civil aviation.

It has also teamed with SA`s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to do computational fluid dynamics using the Meraka Institute`s Centre for High Performance Computing to research next-generation aircraft design.

During the test, the hydrogen- and oxygen-based fuel cell system generated up to 20 kilowatts of electrical power. The emission-free fuel cell system generates water as a waste product.

The fuel cells were used instead of an auxiliary jet engine used by most aircraft to power avionics and other ICT. Fuel cells can also replace batteries and backup generators in ground applications, which have relevance in power-hungry SA.

Safety first

Fuel cells are not currently widely available, but this will change as they are more widely adopted. Airbus`s move will help shape opinion about fuel cells in that the aviation industry is notoriously conservative towards adopting new technology and only does so after it has been proven safe beyond any doubt.

The use of mobile phones aboard aircraft, for example, is not restricted because they are unsafe, but – in the words of the US Federal Aviation Authority – cannot be proven safe.

In the Airbus test, the fuel cell system powered the aircraft`s electric motor pump and the backup hydraulic circuit and also operated the aircraft`s ailerons. The system`s robustness was confirmed at high-gravity loads (“g” loads) during turns and zero gravity aircraft manoeuvres. During the flight test, the fuel cells produced around 10 litres of pure water.

“This achievement will enable Airbus and its partners to further develop ways to implement fuel cell technology for replacing other aircraft systems such as the emergency power systems and the auxiliary power unit,” says Gavin. This would significantly reduce the noise and emission levels in and around airports.

The fuel cell system developed by Airbus and Michelin was tested on the A320 test aircraft owned by the DLR, the German Aerospace Centre. Airbus has been working on fuel cell technology in cooperation with Michelin, Liebherr Aerospace and DLR since late 2005.

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