Airbus studies hydrogen extraction to boost engine efficiency

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EADS is studying techniques for extracting hydrogen from kerosene that could be used on board aircraft to improve the combustion efficiency of aeroengines or supply a fuel cell-based auxiliary power unit.

The manufacturer's "Innovation Works" division is researching whether a partial dehydrogenation process commonly used in the chemicals industry can be used to reform kerosene, yielding gaseous hydrogen to power a fuel cell APU.

EADS says its patented system would employ a catalyst that reacts under "relatively low temperature and pressure conditions", but it remains unclear whether the process could yield sufficient hydrogen to power an APU. The residual hydrocarbons would be used directly for combustion or returned to the kerosene tank. Aircraft integration issues are being addressed as part of the project.

Speaking at a media briefing in Bremen, Germany on 29 January, EADS chief technology officer Jean Botti said a fuel cell APU was "for sure a strong contender" for use on Airbus's eventual next-generation narrowbody A320 replacement. Airbus flew a fuel cell demonstrator last year as part of efforts to develop "more electric" aircraft and eliminate conventional gas turbine APUs.

Botti said EADS was also studying a separate process known as hydrogen enrichment, which would inject hydrogen into an engine's combustion chamber with the aim of reducing emissions of unburned hydrocarbon pollutants. Botti, who worked on applying this process to automotive engines in his previous role as chief of technology for US engineering company Delphi, declines to provide further details "until intellectual property rights have been secured".

EADS says the ability of hydrogen enrichment to reduce pollutants "has been verified by an engine manufacturer". Although previous studies have looked at development of hydrogen-powered aircraft, "I'd rather look at hydrogen right now as a complement [to kerosene]," says Botti.

Among other projects under study at Innovation Works is "mimesis", which is aimed at enhancing situational awareness and could be applied to aircraft cockpits. It combines satellite positioning information and synthetic-vision technologies to provide an "artificial but true and accurate representation of the real world", says Botti. The system could help achieve more efficient use of airspace and enhance safety en-route and at airports, he says.

"It can assist pilots in preventing collisions at airports during taxiing and help in avoiding runway accidents due to bad weather or darkness. It will be better than existing systems, because it can be continuously updated in a receive/transmit dialogue - it can be a 'learning' system if you wish."