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Fuel cell technology for all-electric aircraft

EU-funded researchers evaluated the use of fuel cell technology for future all-electric aircraft. The consortium’s recommendations provide an important roadmap for future research.
Fuel cell technology for all-electric aircraft
Fuel cells have been seen by many as the answer to global fossil fuel problems, providing ‘clean’ electricity from renewable resources. Among their many applications are mobile devices such as cars and buses and back-up power in industrial or home settings.

Given that future aircraft will replace pneumatic and hydraulic components with electrical ones, the aircraft industry is seeking a highly efficient, safe and reliable primary electric power source.

Fuel cell systems have been identified as a clean and quiet alternative to conventional on-board power supplies and, eventually, as the solution for all-electric planes. However, their use requires overcoming certain technical difficulties.

European researchers initiated the ‘Fuel cell application in a new configured aircraft’ (Celina) project to investigate the potential of various fuel cell types as a source of either primary or emergency power, or both.

Scientists sought to evaluate the technical capabilities of existing fuel cell systems for aircraft operating conditions by testing operational behaviour using dynamic simulation models. Such studies resulted in identification of gaps between existing fuel cells and requirements for air-worthiness including safety and certification issues.

Among the main recommendations are that the power-to-weight ratio and volume of current fuel cell systems are prohibitive for aircraft and must be modified, and redundancy must also be included for reliability and safety.

Celina provided an important foundation for the global effort to develop fuel cell technology to be used in future all-electric aircraft. Continued research and action following Celina recommendations may ensure that, in the near future, an aircraft that flies overhead goes unnoticed much as the silent electric and hybrid cars on the ground.

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