Fuel Cells For Sustainable Aviation

| Aerospace Testing

The Testbed 80 facility at Rolls-Royce will test future electric aviation propulsion units

UK Consortium is working on sustainable propulsion technology for the commercial aviation sector

Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS) – the UK SME leading the Project Fresson consortium – will exploit recent advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology to develop a commercially viable, retrofit powertrain for the nine-passenger Britten-Norman Islander aircraft.

Following a rigorous assessment of hydrogen technology innovators, CAeS selected Ricardo UK and Innovatus Technologies into the Fresson consortium to contribute their expertise. Ricardo UK brings its experience in fuel cell system development and Innovatus Technologies brings its innovative Scottish Hydrogen Fuel Tank (SHyFT) technology.

According to Steve Dyke, Managing Director Ricardo Automotive and Industrial EMEA Division, the Cranfield Aerospace Solutions consortium will play a significant role in helping to reduce the carbon footprint for commercial air passengers and Ricardo is already working on hydrogen and fuel cell technology, providing clean efficient systems which reduce carbon and noxious emissions across a wide range of sectors.

“Our work for the Fresson consortium will enable us to consolidate and grow our hydrogen fuel cell and propulsion capability, so that Ricardo can achieve its ambition of becoming a major player in hydrogen and fuel cell services and systems and help accelerate net zero transportation,” he says.

Innovatus Technologies is a specialist in next generation ultra-lightweight hydrogen tank design exploiting patented cellular core composite techniques. This is critical to the successful integration and exploitation of hydrogen fuel cell power systems in applications across aerospace, automotive, industrial and marine sectors.

According to Ruan Swart, Chief Executive Officer of Innovatus Technologies, the unique and innovative SHyFT system has its role to play in bringing zero carbon fuel cell energy to commercial reality in the transport sector.

“Project Fresson showcases important Scottish innovation and next generation hydrogen tank manufacturing in the UK,” he says.

Project Fresson will deliver an emissions-free (zero CO2), hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered flying demonstrator by September of next year. Having completed a comprehensive evaluation of technologies and configurations for sustainable aircraft propulsion, the Fresson team concluded that hydrogen fuel cell technology is the optimum method for meeting environmental, regulatory and operational requirements for this size of aircraft, enabling zero carbon emissions and reducing operating costs. This has presented the Fresson consortium, which includes Britten-Norman and Cranfield University, with an opportunity to deliver an enhanced technology programme that surpasses the original demonstrator concept.

Paul Hutton, Chief Executive Officer, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions says that this is incredibly important for the Project Fresson Team but also for everyone else around the world interested in zero emissions flight.

“This project can deliver the world’s first truly “green” passenger carrying airline services and the whole team is proud of what Project Fresson has achieved so far and excited about what is to come,” he says.

Jenny Kavanagh, Chief Strategy Officer, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions is optimistic after the biggest crisis in aviation’s history cause by Covid-19.

“It’s important that, as the sector builds back better, it does so with sustainability at its heart. Project Fresson is more than just a technology demonstrator; it has one focus above all others: real operational and commercial viability,” she says.

Project Fresson is supported by the ATI Programme, a joint Government and industry investment to maintain and grow the UK’s competitive position in civil aerospace design and manufacture. The programme, delivered through a partnership between the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Innovate UK, addresses technology, capability and supply chain challenges.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel Projects

Ricardo has also recently become involved in the Department for Transport’s (DfT) Green Fuels, Green Skies project as the project manager for the Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) competition. The competition is designed to look at alternative fuels and innovation in aero engines to reduce emissions.

One company at the forefront of researching green aviation is Rolls-Royce. Although no longer involved in the Fresson project, Rolls-Royce is continuing to be actively involved in research into the use of hydrogen in aviation.

Rolls-Royce’s armoury of technology to bolster its search for greener solutions has just been enhanced with the opening of “Testbed 80”, the world’s largest and smartest indoor aerospace testbed located in Derby, UK.

Smart Aero-Engine Test Facility

The completion of the project is a major milestone after almost three years of construction and a £90m investment. With an internal area of 7,500m2, Testbed 80 was designed with distinctive technologies and systems which are more capable and complex than any of the company’s other testbeds. It conducted its first run earlier this year on a Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engine.

According to Warren East, Chief Executive, Rolls-Royce, Testbed 80 is the largest facility of its type in the world. However, it is not only big, it is also smart and features the most advanced testing technology the company has ever used.

“As the new global hub of our testing capability, it will support the next stage of our UltraFan programme as we begin ground testing the first demonstrator in 2022. This incredible piece of infrastructure is a very visible sign of our commitment to this site and secures the future of Derby as the home of large engine development, continuing a history that began in the late 1960s with the RB211.”

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng commented that the government is supporting Rolls-Royce’s development of the highly-efficient UltraFan engine, as well as its investment in green and cutting-edge aerospace technology in the UK that will create high-skilled, well-paid jobs for decades to come.

“As the civil aviation market recovers, the innovation of great British companies such as Rolls-Royce and the entire aerospace sector are central to our plans to build back better from the pandemic and end our contribution to climate change by 2050,” he says.

Sustainability Strategy

Testbed 80 will support all three pillars of sustainability. Firstly, continuing to improve the efficiency of the gas turbine. The facility has been designed to test a range of today’s engines, including the Trent XWB and the Trent 1000, but will also have the capability to test the UltraFan demonstrator, the blueprint for the next generation of Rolls-Royce engines. UltraFan will be 25% more efficient than the first Trent engine, and we will begin ground testing the demonstrator at the testbed in 2022.

Secondly, Rolls-Royce is committed to promoting the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), which can already be used as “drop-in” fuels in its existing engines. Testbed 80 has been designed to support this commitment – it is equipped with a 140,000-litre fuel tank for different fuel types, including SAFs.

Finally, in line with the company’s ambition to pioneer novel, more sustainable technologies, the testbed is designed to have the capability to test the hybrid or all-electric flight systems of the future.

Jonathan Newell
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