Powering tomorrow's aircraft

January 03, 2012— Ottawa, Ontario

It looked, smelled and tasted like ordinary coffee, but the way it was brewed was anything but ordinary. On November 22, the National Research Council (NRC) and Boeing Commercial Airplanes made a pot of coffee with hydrogen power, showing that hydrogen fuel cells could be used to provide electricity on board aircraft. 

The event, which occurred at the British Columbia Institute of Technology Aerospace Technology Campus in Richmond, B.C., demonstrates the feasibility of safely using fuel cells to help increase electrification in the aerospace sector. A fuel cell produces zero emissions and, with a fuel-to-power conversion efficiency of around 60 percent, could be more efficient at generating electricity than an aircraft’s gas turbine generator. 

“Boeing feels it’s important to ensure that air travel is sustainable in the long term,” says NRC researcher Mark Rossetto. The high cost of fuel as well as the need to reduce emissions means that anything the industry can do to improve energy efficiency is a good thing.” 

The project began in August 2010, when Boeing asked the NRC Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation to help develop a system to operate a fuel cell power generator on an airplane. Joe Breit, principal investigator for fuel cell technology at Boeing, says “one of the main reasons we wanted to work with NRC was to tap into its knowledge on hydrogen safety.” 

Drawing on NRC expertise, Rossetto’s team designed a fuel cell and hydrogen storage system that could fit into the cargo hold of an airplane while providing safe and reliable auxiliary power to onboard devices. With the help of several Canadian suppliers, the researchers integrated the system into an electrical power generator for the galley of an out-of-service Boeing 737-200. In the process, they overcame various airplane limitations, including temperature, weight, volume and access.  

“We’re interested in using fuel cells to power the galley because they potentially allow us to take power loads off of airplane engines using a renewable clean energy source,” says Breit. What’s more, the galley consumes “a fairly significant portion of the overall airplane electrical load,” he adds.

A flying electrical grid

On a transoceanic flight, a jumbo jet may burn more than 100,000 litres of jet fuel, “of which a sizeable portion is used to make electricity,” says NRC’s Mark Rossetto. Boeing’s new 787 is essentially a mini flying electrical grid. The 787 uses about 20 percent less fuel than previous aircraft, but requires about 1 megawatt of electrical power, which is generated on board.

Having demonstrated this proof-of-concept, the next step is to “install and operate a fuel cell system on board a flying aircraft,” says Rossetto, who adds that system refinements and more rigorous testing will be required for future flight readiness. For example, NRC is discussing the possibility of future work with Boeing, involving NRC’s expertise in hydrogen safety, modelling and sensor development. 

The partners believe it will be several years before the first hydrogen fuel cells appear on commercial aircraft. At first, they will likely be used only for non-critical applications such as powering the aircraft’s galley and entertainment systems.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

Eric Fuller

NRC technical officer Eric Fuller controls the fuel cell system from inside the Boeing 737. A storage tank (left) provide water to the aircraft’s coffee makers.

Rear cargo hold of Boeing 737

Rear cargo hold of Boeing 737, where the fuel cell system is located. Also visible is the hydrogen fuelling apparatus.

Boeing 737

Boeing 737 galley, which was energized completely by the fuel cell system.

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