The days when you will be able to board a hydrogen-powered passenger flight still seem a long way off, but this news of further collaboration between two highly innovative UK companies on hydrogen aerospace propulsion is a welcome sign that it is becoming closer to reality.
Airbus announced last year that it was developing a hydrogen-powered plane, but estimated that it would not be ready until about 2035 (because of the long design cycle time in aviation). Generally, there is much uncertainty about what will be the “outright winner” in terms of power source for aviation as we approach net zero. Hydrogen propulsion is certainly a contender, and it is good to see its development forging ahead, as shown by the Memorandum of Understanding signed between these two companies.
Reaction Engines has been around for many years and is perhaps best known for its SABRE air-breathing rocket, made possible by its ground-breaking heat-dissipation technology. The craft is designed to fly so fast that when the incoming air is compressed it is heated to 1000°C, and in order to avoid melting the engine it must be cooled to -150°C in 1/100 of second. Reaction Engines’ ingenious cooling systems achieve this while avoiding the problem of icing up. Now Reaction Engines is looking to harness its innovation and bring it into new markets with its collaboration with Cranfield Aerospace Solutions. Cranfield brings expertise in hydrogen fuel cell technology and certification (quite an important aspect of designing aircraft!) and how you integrate that technology into an aircraft in a practical and commercial way.
Cranfield has been working on retrofitting the technology to an existing small aircraft designed for use with a traditional combustion engine. One of the engineering challenges has been dispersing enough excess heat from the fuel cell, as low temperature differences between the fuel cell and ambient air have made heat dissipation difficult. Using an ordinary car radiator-type design would have been prohibitively large and heavy, and this is where Reaction Engines’ knowhow in cooling comes in.
It is hoped that this new cooperation will build on the success of the previous tie-up, and that hydrogen fuel cell propulsion continues to be seen as a strong option in the journey towards net zero.