The Frontier of Aviation: Hydrogen Electric Propulsion Systems

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In the realm of aviation, the tides are turning towards sustainability and reduced environmental impact. At the forefront of this transformation is the development of Hydrogen Electric Propulsion Systems (HEPS). The Moscow Aviation Institute has been pivotal in advancing HEPS, leveraging superconducting electrical machines and hydrogen cooling systems. This innovative approach is a testament to the shift from traditional fossil fuels to hydrogen energy in aviation, marking a significant step in sustainable aircraft technology.

What exactly is Hydrogen Electric Propulsion Systems (HEPS) propulsion ?

High-Temperature Superconducting (HTS) Generators

HEPS often utilize HTS generators, which are key components in reducing CO2 emissions. These generators work in tandem with hydrogen gas turbines, harnessing the cold energy of liquid hydrogen. This approach negates the need for additional refrigeration, thereby minimizing cooling costs. One ambitious goal in this field is the commercialization of a 600 MW-class liquid hydrogen-cooled HTS generator.

Such a generator requires an assembled conductor capable of conducting 6 kA at 20 K and 5 T. A notable aspect of these conductors is their ability to manage interlayer current distribution effectively, which is crucial for steady operation and rapid response to power demands​​.

Superconducting Coils and Magnetic Fields

Another important aspect of HEPS is the use of superconducting coils. These coils, when applied to a rotating magnetic field, have been studied for their alternating current losses at cryogenic temperatures. Such studies are vital to understanding the efficiency and functionality of HEPS under various operational conditions​​.

Advantages of Superconducting Machines

Superconducting rotating machines, integral to HEPS, offer advantages over conventional machines, including higher efficiency, reduced size and weight, and lower energy consumption. High-temperature superconducting materials simplify the cooling design compared to low-temperature superconductors. These machines have been categorized based on the form of superconductor used, including wires/tapes, bulks, and stacked tapes, and have been applied in various types of machines, such as synchronous, induction, and flux modulation machines​​.

The Role of Liquid Hydrogen

Liquid hydrogen plays a dual role in HEPS – as a fuel and as a coolant. Its use as a coolant is particularly advantageous in fully electric aircraft designs. The Moscow Aviation Institute’s research into fully superconducting aviation synchronous generators for electric propulsion systems has highlighted the importance of liquid hydrogen in increasing the linear load of the generator and reducing the cross-sectional area of the coils.

This approach has the potential to facilitate the placement of these coils in individual cryostats, further enhancing the system’s efficiency​​.

Hydrogen Hybrid Electric Propulsion Systems (H2EPS)

A collaboration between the Electric Aviation Group (EAG) and the University of Nottingham aims to develop and commercialize kW-MW class electric propulsion systems, both superconducting and non-superconducting, for aerospace and non-aerospace applications. These systems are intended to support the development of hybrid, all-electric, and hydrogen-electric aircraft, with the ultimate goal of decarbonizing the aviation sector.

The University of Nottingham brings to the table expertise in power electronics and electrical machines for aerospace applications, having previously demonstrated aircraft propulsion drive systems up to 4MW/5MVA​​.


Integrating Liquid Hydrogen: Fuel and Coolant

A critical aspect of HEPS is the integration of liquid hydrogen not only as a fuel but also as a coolant for superconducting aviation equipment. This dual role of hydrogen enhances the efficiency and functionality of the propulsion system. Theoretical and experimental researches at the Moscow Aviation Institute have focused on the specific mass-dimensional parameters of fully superconducting aviation synchronous generators, essential for electric propulsion systems. These studies are laying the groundwork for future fully electric aircraft.

Airbus and the Zero-Emission Vision

Parallel to the advancements at the Moscow Aviation Institute, Airbus has been making strides in the same direction. Their development of a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine is set to revolutionize aircraft propulsion. Slated for ground and flight testing in the mid-2020s, this propulsion system is poised to be a contender for Airbus’s ZEROe demonstrator aircraft, targeting a zero-emission aircraft entry into service by 2035.

This initiative by Airbus aligns with the global push towards decarbonization and environmental responsibility in aviation.

Fuel Cells: The Heart of Airbus’s Hydrogen Vision

Central to Airbus’s approach is the utilization of fuel cells. These cells are being explored as a potential solution to power a 100-passenger aircraft with a range of approximately 1,000 nautical miles. This investment in fuel cell technology reflects Airbus’s commitment to finding viable solutions for zero-emission aviation, aiming to launch the development of their future ZEROe aircraft between 2027 and 2028.

The development of Hydrogen Electric Propulsion Systems by the Moscow Aviation Institute and Airbus’s venture into hydrogen-powered aircraft signify a new era in aviation. These advancements herald a future where sustainability, efficiency, and reduced environmental impact are at the heart of air travel. As these technologies evolve, they promise to reshape the aviation industry, steering it towards a greener and more sustainable horizon.

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