Airbus en route to revolutionise commercial air transport with fuel cells research


Airbus, the world’s leading commercial aircraft manufacturer, has announced that it has inked a partnership with South Africa’s National Aerospace Centre (NAC) to jointly fund research undertaken by Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) into the application of fuel cells on airliners.

Airbus en route to revolutionise commercial air transport with fuel cells research
Image credit: Airbus Facebook page

The three year project was launched in Cape Town last week, the company revealed in a news release.

“This fuel cell project with HySA Systems Competence Centre and the National Aerospace Centre 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.  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,” explained Dale King, Airbus’ Senior Manager, Emerging Technologies and Concepts.

Finding alternative solutions to fossil-fuel based propulsion and energy sources has become a priority.

Airbus has identified hydrogen fuel cells as a future, emissions-free substitute to the small gas turbine engines known as Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), which are used for generating on-board electrical power and heat while the aircraft is on the ground. If the fossil-fuel powered APUs are replaced with hydrogen fuel cells, the goals of emission-free and low-noise aircraft operation could be achieved in the near future.

“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 G. Pollet.

“Hydrogen fuel cells technology is set to become a game-changer in aerospace and a number of other fields.  This project provides global visibility of South Africa’s expertise in the field.  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,” said Philip Haupt, Director of the NAC.

Fuel cells would reduce the overall weight of aircraft and could enable aircraft to produce their own water supplies. They need less maintenance since they don’t have any moving parts, and can also boost aircraft safety as they generate inerting gas which is used to reduce flammability levels in aircraft fuel tanks and for supressing any cargo hold fires.