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HySA, NAC and Airbus project takes flight

HySA, NAC and Airbus team up on high-flying fuel-cell project

With demand for air transport doubling every 15 years, the global airline industry will require nearly 30,000 new large aircraft in the next twenty years. Simultaneously, high jet fuel costs and industry commitments to halve CO2 emissions levels by 2050 are driving the search for alternative solutions to fossil fuel-based propulsion and energy sources.

With this in mind, HySA Systems Competence Centre at the University of the Western Cape, the National Aerospace Centre and Airbus have identified hydrogen fuel cells (HFC) as a future, emissions-free substitute to small gas turbines, called Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), which are used for generating on-board electrical power and heat while the aircraft is on the ground. Replacing the fossil fuel-powered APUs with hydrogen fuel cells would help achieve the goals of emission-free and low-noise aircraft operation.

“Although fuel cell technology for land vehicles has rapidly matured,” Professor Bruno G. Pollet, Director of HySA Systems, explains, “the new research with Airbus and the National Aerospace Centre is aimed at gaining an understanding of how hydrogen fuel cells could perform over an aircraft’s service life - while subjected to the harsh and rapidly changing climatic and environmental conditions that commercial jetliners operate in.”

The HySA/Airbus/NAC project will identify and test factors that influence low-temperature fuel cell lifespan in a mobile environment, find a method for assessing fuel cell State of Health, and finally, form a model for a State of Health figure-of-merit for operational diagnostics and prediction. This will enable engineers to better validate the expected life of fuel cells before they are implemented, and support efforts to predict fuel cell life under various operational conditions, which will serve to make HFC transportation safer and more effective.

“The fuel cell project with HySA Systems and the National Aerospace Centre is the latest element of Airbus’s research and technology initiative with South Africa,” says Dale King, Airbus’s Senior Manager: Emerging Technologies and Concepts. “It underlies our commitment to South Africa, which is a significant market, hosts some of our most important suppliers and is a vital knowledge partner for Airbus.”

The research will be undertaken by HySA Systems Competence Centre at its University of the Western Cape research facility, which has also been responsible for introducing South Africa's first hydrogen-powered golf cart, as well as its first hydrogen-powered tricycle and first fuel cell backup power systems prototype for the telecommunications market, in addition to making many other breakthroughs in HFC technology.