Powering Non-Propulsion Systems More EfficientlyAirbus is planning to test a new way to make its planes more fuel-efficient. The idea is to take a load off the plane's engines by powering non-propulsion systems - basically everything that run on electricity in the plane, light the entertainment electronics avionics, lights, environmental controls, etc - with a hydrogen fuel-cell. This allows the engines to be kept off for longer when the plane is on the ground (an idea we touched on here), and once in the air, the fuel-cell produces electricity more efficiently than the engines can, and if the hydrogen that powers it comes from a clean source, you get a compounding of the environmental benefits. It seems like a total win-win, at least in theory.
A 90-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell will be installed into an A320 owned by the German Aerospace Center with the aim of commencing test flights by 2015.
"The advantage of a fuel cell is, you have direct conversion of energy from chemical to electrical," says Michel Loignon, an engineering manager at Airbus. "We're taking a collection of reasonably mature technologies and integrating them."
To accommodate the need for additional power, aircraft are often designed with slightly larger engines than is strictly necessary, increasing the overall weight of the aircraft. The weight of the fuel cell and its fuel supply would be more than offset by the removal of the auxiliary power unit and the fact that it generates power more efficiently (source)
Combine this with other aviation advances, like MIT's plane designs that could use 70% less fuel than current designs, and advanced aviation biofuels made form carbon-neutral sources, and we're clearly moving in the direction of much more environmentally-friendly air travel.