Hydrogen Taking To The Skies

Hydrogen Taking To The Skies

Last week, we spoke about Hydrogen-powered cars to reduce emissions. In this second part, we look at what Hydrogen can do for the aviation industry.

Robert Austin

Editor's note:  Robert Austin examines the potential of hydrogen for the aviation industry in the second of two parts on hydrogen fuel cells.  He emphasizes how the world is more than the binary choices of fossil fuels or electric power, as promoted by the media and governments.

If you thought that the zero-emission regulations only applied to vehicles that operate on the ground, you were mistaken! The aircraft industry is also marching into a world free from fossil fuels and aiming at zero emissions.

Aircraft pose even more challenges than automobiles, trucks, buses, construction equipment, ships, and railroad engines.  Aircraft have to fly, and that means their weight is a critical factor.  Aircraft also only make money when they are flying, so rapid refueling can be a really big factor. For very obvious reasons, aircraft engines must be as close to 100% reliable as possible.

The engine shown in the photos above is called an Open Fan Architecture engine. It is designed to lower both emissions and fuel consumption by 20% and has the ability to operate on Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). (Note, there are several SAF fuels today.  The most widely used is a combination of 50% kerosene with 50% biofuel, created by processing things like the byproduct of palm oil production).

It is part of an advanced technology demonstration program for sustainable engines, operated jointly by GE Aviation and Safran.  Known as the CFM RISE (Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engines), in addition to looking very different from today’s aircraft engines, it is also a hybrid and can run on electricity.

Why Can’t A Jet Engine Just Burn Hydrogen Instead Of Kerosene-Based Fuel?

Actually, the design of a jet engine requires a relatively small amount of change to run on Hydrogen.  Additionally, to get the same range and performance from a hydrogen-burning jet aircraft versus a kerosene-burning jet, it would take about two-thirds the weight of fuel!  But before you get too excited, there are issues.

United States Airfoce Martin B57 Bomber circa 1957

Way back in 1957, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the precursor to NASA, flew a Martin B57 Bomber with one of its engines burning Hydrogen.  In 1988, the Russians converted one of their TU-155 passenger jets to fly with hydrogen power.  Both were successful.  But, Hydrogen was not a product used regularly in laboratories and industrial processes, so there was no infrastructure to make it commercially available, or at prices that would be competitive with fossil-based fuels. So no one really continued to explore that avenue.

In order to make hydrogen-powered aircrafts a practical reality, it would take two things:

  • The first - an aircraft should be specifically designed to be hydrogen-powered. Hydrogen is best stored at rather high pressures, so its tanks have to be strong and should be either cylindrical or spherical and should be housed in the plane’s fuselage, instead of being in the wings as they are in aircraft today.
  • The second thing is that hydrogen production has to be significantly scaled up and based around processes using low carbon energy sources like solar, wind, or nuclear electricity. This is by no means impossible. It is just that there was no legislative, moral, or economic reason to step up the production of Hydrogen as a fuel prior to the global warming concerns that have developed during recent decades. Remember, the exhaust coming out of a hydrogen-burning engine is primarily H2O, or water, with relatively small traces of nitric oxide.

While Hydrogen may not power your plane’s engines today, it could power its accessories.   How about a hydrogen fuel cell designed specifically for aviation applications? General Motors and Liebherr-Aerospace have agreed to collaborate on developing a HYDROTEC hydrogen fuel cell-based electrical power generation system for aircraft applications.  GM is a pioneer in fuel cell technology, and Liebherr has extensive experience integrating technology into aircraft.  The two companies are pooling their skills for this project, which has the potential to lower the emissions of aircraft, lower their noise profile, and offer an alternative energy power source for the aviation industry.

HYDROTEC hydrogen fuel cell-based electrical power generation system for aircraft applications
HYDROTEC hydrogen fuel cell-based electrical power generation system for aircraft applications

One interesting advantage of having a fuel cell on an aircraft is that when it generates electricity by combining Hydrogen with Oxygen from the air, needed to run the accessories (and potentially even the electrics of its engines), its “exhaust” is water.  Recognizing this fact, an aircraft could conceivably take off with several hundred pounds less water, knowing that while it is in the air, it will be generating its own water to flush the lavatories!  An extra clean energy benefit!

More Than Two Options

I hope last week's story about hydrogen-powered cars and this week's story about hydrogen in aviation have opened your eyes to more than the two options presented to us by the majority of the media and most government agencies.  The world is not limited to binary choices.  Our choices are not just fossil fuels or electricity.

Hydrogen is the most common element in the Universe! When combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, it can provide electricity on demand.  It can also be used as a fuel in what we know today as internal combustion engines, such as automobile and aircraft engines.  It can be generated using surplus electricity from wind and solar generators and used as a means of storing energy.  And it can be relatively easily transported, stored, and distributed, not unlike the natural gas of today.  When used either in a fuel cell or in an engine, its exhaust is water and not a carbon compound.  These facts have not gone unnoticed by some of the world’s greatest industrial companies.

A parting thought: perhaps things work best when governments define the problems, in this case, excessive use of fossil fuels and increasing greenhouse gases, and allow the industry to respond in various creative ways.

TIPP Takes

These Moguls Are Tough To Glide Over

Less than eight months to go before the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, officials, sponsors, and member countries of the Olympic movement face growing pressure to boycott or transfer the world sporting event in the face of China's deepening repression in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

Chinese Winter Olympics Cartoon Rebel Pepper

Japan ratifies World's Biggest Trade Deal Involving China, ASEAN

Japan ratified the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega trade agreement involving China, Australia, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Chinese And Japanese Made Cars

The pact will be Japan's first trade deal involving both China and South Korea, its biggest and third-biggest trade partners, respectively.

This year, the Japanese government estimated that the trade treaty could lift the gross domestic product of the world's third-largest economy by about 2.7 percent.

The trade deal is designed to remove tariffs on 91 percent of goods and standardize rules on investment, intellectual property, and e-commerce, among other trade practices. It also aims to promote optimization of the supply chains within the free trade zone.

The RCEP groups the 10 ASEAN states -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam -- as well as Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.

Biden Meets Afghan Leaders, Promises U.S. Support Despite Troop Withdrawal

U.S. President met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his former political foe, Abdullah Abdullah, to discuss Washington's support for Afghanistan as the last U.S. troops pack up after 20 years of war and government forces struggle to repel Taliban advances.

Afghan Ashraf Ghani (Left) And U.S President Joe Biden
Afghan Ashraf Ghani (Left) And U.S President Joe Biden

Ghani said Afghan security forces had retaken six districts. He said he respected Biden's decision and that the United States and Afghanistan partnership is entering a new phase.

"We are determined to have unity, coherence," he said.

The Oval Office meeting could be as valuable to Ghani for its symbolism and any new U.S. help. It will be seen as affirming Biden's support for the beleaguered Afghan leader as he confronts Taliban gains, bombings and assassinations, a surge in COVID-19 cases, and political infighting in Kabul.

Biden's embrace, however, comes only months after U.S. officials were pressuring Ghani to step aside for a transitional government under a draft political accord that they floated in a failed gambit to break a stalemate in peace talks.

Car Bomb Wounds At Least 13 UN Peacekeepers In Mali

The UN says a car bomb targeted a temporary peacekeeper base near Tarkint in the northeastern region of Gao.

United Nations MINUSMA Peace Keeping Force
United Nations MINUSMA Peace Keeping Force

The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, said on Twitter that the wounded soldiers were evacuated following the incident that targeted a temporary base near Tarkint in the northeastern region of Gao.

A UN mission spokesperson later said 12 of the wounded were German, and one was Belgian. The mission had earlier said that 15 peacekeepers were wounded but revised that number downward.

In a public statement, the German Defence Minister also said that 12 of the peacekeepers were German and that three were seriously injured.

Two of the three were in stable condition, she said, while one has undergone surgery. All of the wounded have been evacuated by helicopter, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer added.

MINUSMA is regarded as one of the deadliest missions in UN peacekeeping history. According to UN statistics, more than 130 of its personnel have been killed since July 2013, including six this year.

Scientists Hail Stunning 'Dragon Man' Discovery

The team has claimed it the closest evolutionary relative among known species of ancient humans, such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

Human Evolutionary Skulls

Nicknamed "Dragon Man," the specimen represents a human group that lived in East Asia at least 146,000 years ago.

It was found at Harbin, north-east China, in 1933 but only came to the attention of scientists more recently. An analysis of the skull has been published in the journal The Innovation.

The researchers say the discovery has the potential to rewrite the story of human evolution. Their analysis suggests that it is more closely related to Homo sapiens than it is to Neanderthals.

They have assigned the specimen to a new species: Homo longi, from the Chinese word "long," meaning dragon.

The scientists believe that Dragon Man was powerfully built and rugged. But, little is known about how he lived because the skull was removed from where it was found.

That means that there is currently no archaeological context, such as stone tools or other elements of culture.


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