Airbus examines potential for using hydrogen fuel cells in commercial aircraft


September 4, 2014

Airbus is helping fund a project examining the potential for hydrogen fuel cells to replace APUs for generating power in the ground (Photo: Airbus/ A. Doumenjou)

Airbus is helping fund a project examining the potential for hydrogen fuel cells to replace APUs for generating power in the ground (Photo: Airbus/ A. Doumenjou)

With the airline industry's commitment to halve 2005 CO2 emission levels by 2050 prompting Airbus and others to accelerate the development of alternative jet fuels, Airbus is now getting behind a project to examine the potential for using hydrogen fuel cells on commercial airliners – not to power the jet engines, but to replace the Auxiliary Power Units (APUs).

Located in the tapered tail cone section of the rear fuselage in commercial jet aircraft, APUs are small gas turbine engines responsible for generating on-board electrical power and heat when the aircraft is on the ground, as well as providing power to start the main engines.

With the goal of realizing emission-free and low-noise operation when the aircraft is on the ground, Airbus has teamed with South Africa's National Aerospace Centre to jointly fund research to examine the potential for hydrogen fuel cells to replace APUs.

The three-year research project will be conducted by Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) Systems Competence Centre at its research facility located at the University of the Western Cape in Capetown.

In addition to cutting emissions and noise on the ground, the use of fuel cells would also offer numerous other benefits. Being lighter than an APU, and with the potential to also replace heavy batteries, they would reduce the weight of the aircraft and therefore also the amount of fuel burned and emissions produced by the aircraft while in the air.

Additionally, with fuel cells producing water as a byproduct, they would allow the aircraft to generate its own water supply. And with fuel cells having no moving parts, they would be easier and cheaper to maintain than fossil-fuel powered APUs.

With all their potential benefits, it's not surprising that this isn't the first time that Airbus has dipped its toes in the hydrogen fuel cell waters. The company has already performed test flights with fuel cells used to power individual power systems and tested a fuel cell-powered nose wheel that allows autonomous and emission-free taxiing.

"Although fuel cell technology for land vehicles has rapidly matured," says HySA Systems Director, Professor Bruno G. Pollet, "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."

Source: Airbus

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

The fuel cells might be light but how much does the hydrogen storage device weigh?


I'm not sure I like the idea of hydrogen stored on and around aircraft since it is quite explosive at almost any ratio with oxygen. It can even diffuse through metal. Even the tiniest leak could form an explosive pocket of gas. I'm sure that the engineers who built the Hindenburg thought that they also had considered everything. Even the production of the hydrogen isn't all that environmentally friendly unless it uses electrolysis which is very expensive. If the APUs are just used on the ground to generate electricity, why not just use an auxiliary unit simply plugged which would cut even more weight from the plane. Much could be gained from standardizing airplanes and improving ground handling equipment. Future terminals and ground handling will have to be redesigned for the bigger jets anyway.


@ Bob It was not they hydrogen that did in the Hindenburg it was the powdered aluminum and ferrous oxide coating the skin.

The problem is not the safety it is the expense.


Slowburn My point was that hydrogen is extremely dangerous and even the best plans fail to consider something. I worked with hydrogen test equipment for years and have a great respect for hydrogen's ability to leak and even diffuse through metal through a number of processes. It is explosive with air in concentrations as low as 4%. This makes it very dangerous since leaks can develop and gas pockets can form. If this can happen in a stationary laboratory, I'm sure that the vibration and turbulence while flying would make it even more likely. Throw in a few years of hydrogen embrittlement and this will be an accident waiting to happen.


Is this really cost effective or is this just an expensive publicity stunt?

Luke Beauchamp

I guess they don't think about liquid storage, but solid storage. More secure, more easy and lighter. Recent solutions developped by McPhy, for instance, could make sense.


@ Bob Not even all metals suffer from hydrogen embrittlement and providing adequate ventilation to prevent a gas pocket isn't that difficult. The real problem is storage you have the choice between heavy and ultra-cryogenic liquid. I would worry more about the wear on the fuel cells from the vibration and such than the hydrogen storage.

@ Luke Beauchamp My bet is on publicity stunt.

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