Patented process produces hydrogen on demand for fuel cell-powered aircraft | The American Ceramic Society

Patented process produces hydrogen on demand for fuel cell-powered aircraft

jet aircraft flying

[Image above] Credit: Caribb; Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When it comes to energy efficient transportation, science has come a long way. We now have hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles—and engineers are still working to improve upon those technologies.

Do you ever stop to think about the amount of CO2 a plane generates as you cruise thousands of feet over the planet on the way to your vacation resort? Three scientists at Technion Israel Institute of Technology certainly have.

The team recently created (and patented) an inexpensive process to create hydrogen onboard airplanes by combining water already on the plane with aluminum powder. The hydrogen generated on-demand is converted into electrical energy for use on the plane, replacing more polluting potential power sources.

Scientists have previously embraced and promoted hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels, but that comes with its own challenges. For example, upfront costs can be expensive, and storing hydrogen requires use of high-pressure tanks for a gas or very low temperatures for a liquid.

The patent

The Technion research team solved some of the challenges by mixing aluminum powder and water to produce hydrogen. What’s interesting about the process is the scientists used wastewater—that’s right, from toilets on the plane—in addition to clean water to conduct their experiment.

The resulting hydrogen was channeled through a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell to generate electrical energy, which can be used on board an aircraft.

This innovative process of generating electricity could lead to “cleaner” and less costly power sources for aircraft. An article on the American Technion Society (ATS) website suggests “the breakthrough could pave the way for less-polluting, more-electric aircraft that replace hydraulic and pneumatic systems typically powered by the main engine.”

Valery Rosenbrand, one of the researchers, explains that PEM fuel cells are a better method to generate electrical energy. “The possibility of using available, onboard wastewater boosts both the efficiency and safety of the system,” Rosenbrand says in the article.

PEM fuel cells have several benefits over traditional power sources—they reduce pollution, they’re quieter, they’re low-maintenance, and they’re not dependent on a central power grid.

Besides the obvious energy savings, Technion researchers claim additional other benefits their patented technology would produce, including:

  • Reduction in CO2 emissions,
  • More efficient and quieter power generation,
  • No need to keep bulky hydrogen storage tanks on the airplane, and
  • Additional energy saving role in ground operations, e.g., de-icing the plane and heating food and water on board.

Some aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing and Airbus, have already experimented with the technology. If fuel cell technology “takes off” (pun intended) with the rest of the aircraft industry, would the long-term savings to airlines be given back to us consumers in the form of, say, free on-board wi-fi?

Just a suggestion. Are you listening, airlines?!

The paper, published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, is “On-board hydrogen production for auxiliary power in passenger aircraft” (DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhydene.2017.02.037).