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9/8/2014 | 2 MINUTE READ

Airbus to evaluate fuel cells for auxiliary power units

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Airbus and South Africa's National Aerospace Centre will jointly fund a three-year research program by Hydrogen South Africa on application of fuel cells on airliners in auxiliary power units (APUs).

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Airbus (Toulouse, France) and South Africa’s National Aerospace Centre announced on Sept. 2 that they will jointly fund research by Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) on the application of fuel cells on airliners in auxiliary power units (APUs). The initial three-year project will be undertaken by HySA Systems Competence Centre at its University of the Western Cape research facility.

Airbus has identified hydrogen fuel cells as a future, emissions-free substitute to small gas turbine engine-powered APUs, which are used for generating on-board electrical power and heat while the aircraft is on the ground. Almost every airliner designed and built since the advent of jet travel in the 1950s has been equipped with an APU, which is located in the tapered tail cone section of the rear fuselage. Replacing the fossil-fuel powered APUs with hydrogen fuel cells would help achieve the goals of emission-free and low-noise aircraft operation.

“This fuel cell project with HySA Systems Competence Centre and the National Aerospace Centre is the latest element of Airbus’s Research and Technology initiative with South Africa, which was launched in 2006 and involves collaboration with several of the country’s universities and research institutes. It underlines our commitment to South Africa, which is a significant market, hosts some of our most important suppliers and is a vital knowledge partner for Airbus” says Dale King, Airbus’ senior manager, Emerging Technologies and Concepts.

HySA Systems director, Professor Bruno G. Pollet, says that “although fuel cell technology for land vehicles has rapidly matured, 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.”

Philip Haupt, director of the NAC, says, “Hydrogen fuel cells technology is set to become a game-changer in aerospace and a number of other fields. This project provides global visibility of South Africa’s expertise in the field. In addition, by leading the project that will further the understanding and maturation of hydrogen fuel cell technology, South Africa will be able to place its advanced manufacturing sector in a prime position to take advantage of the inevitable opportunities that will emerge”.

Besides emission-free and low-noise aircraft operation, fuel cells would reduce the overall weight of aircraft, leading to lower fuel burn and operating costs together with further reduced carbon emissions during flight. As by-products, hydrogen fuel cells could enable aircraft to generate their own water supplies. They would also have a safety benefit through their ability to generate inerting gas used to reduce flammability levels in aircraft fuel tanks and for supressing any cargo hold fires. 

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