Superconducting technology for electric flight

Airbus has embarked on a new development program examining the applicability of superconductors cooled to near-zero temperature. This is expected to lead to significant weight reductions, which could advance the development of electric-powered aircraft. In contrast to conventional-powered aircraft, there is still a huge problem with the development of electrical types, and the mass of batteries in particular, which is why most developers are still thinking only of smaller models.

According to Airbus, one way forward could be to build a powertrain with cryogenic temperature superconductors – materials with no electrical resistance cooled to near zero degrees, or -273 degrees Celsius, writes Flightglobal. The project, called ASCEND, is led by Ludovic Ybanez, with a technology demonstrator scheduled to be completed within three years. In this, there are no motors or batteries, only the goal of reducing the weight of the power transmission system, but the difficulty of the extreme temperature required by superconductors.

For this reason, such solutions have so far only been used in space telescopes and special medical devices orbiting the Earth, but those similar to the electrical system dreamed of by Airbus still exist under laboratory conditions. According to Ybanez, if successful, they can redraw the image of electric flying so far and pave the way for building stronger, more efficient resources into larger types. As an example, he highlighted liquid hydrogen power generation, which Airbus has been experimenting with for some time. One possibility studied is that liquefied gas at a temperature of -253 degrees Celsius is first used to cool the superconducting system and, when sufficiently warmed, is injected into a fuel cell to produce energy – if safety risks are eliminated.

Ybanez stressed, however, that it is also inconceivable that superconductors should be combined with conventional but also low-temperature cooled semiconductors to form a system made up of components with different temperatures. At the end of the project, it may also turn out that most of the system will be discarded and only partial solutions will be carried forward. The technology demonstrator, designed in the ASCEND program, will be built by Airbus UpNext’s subsidiary and can be completed by the end of 2023 at their E-Aircraft System House headquarters near Munich.

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