Wings Magazine

NRC-designed fuel cell system has commercial aircraft uses

Nov. 28, 2011, Richmond, B.C. - In an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has partnered with Boeing Commercial Airplanes to address the safe utilization of hydrogen in a custom-designed fuel cell system, which could provide reliable auxiliary power as a targeted concept for future commercial aircraft.

November 28, 2011  By Carey Fredericks

"This demonstration project creates new commercial opportunities for Canadian hydrogen and fuel cell solutions as well as for technology developers, manufacturers and suppliers along the aerospace supply chain," said Maja Veljkovic, Director General at the NRC Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation. "NRC looks forward to continuing its work with Boeing and other companies to de-risk complex technology solutions."

The NRC oversees this research being carried onboard a grounded Boeing 737 at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) Aerospace Technology Campus. NRC researchers have helped successfully transfer a new fuel cell system to the commercial aerospace sector, while addressing very rigorous integration and safety requirements. This involved transferring compressed hydrogen from a mobile fuelling cart to a storage cylinder onboard the aircraft and then operating the system to power the rear galley and brew coffee. Building on experiences gained in ground transport and mobile applications, technology readiness demos are key to advancing fuel cells for aviation use.

To optimize the system, NRC and Boeing worked together with multiple Canadian suppliers to integrate the fuel cell, hydrogen storage tank, safety devices, and power conditioning equipment to overcome various airplane limitations, including runtime, temperature, weight, volume and access. The newly developed system fits into the aircraft cargo hold. The next step in this NRC-Boeing collaboration will be to refine the system, modifying components for size, weight and suitability for flight.

"Fuel cell technology applications are a key element of aviation's longer term environmental strategy, but they must be developed with safety and efficiency as top priorities," said Joe Breit of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "The technology is not without its challenges, but it's very promising and this demonstration is an important step in better understanding the airplane interface and integration challenges."


While the scale of power generation demonstrated was relatively small, it confirms the feasibility of using fuel cells to help reduce environmental impacts from aviation. A fuel cell is around 60 percent efficient at converting fuel to power, double that of an internal combustion engine, resulting in greater energy efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions.


Stories continue below