Japan pours billions of yen into plan to build the world’s largest hydrogen fuel cell for aviation



The Japanese government has promised a combined ¥17.3bn ($110m) to two hydrogen research projects, one of which aims to build and demonstrate a prototype of a massive 4MW fuel cell propulsion system for use in aviation — the biggest known to be under development in the world — within five years.


This is more than three times as large as the 1.2MW fuel cell system currently being developed by French aircraft maker Airbus, which it plans to test in flight on its giant A380 aircraft in 2026.


The second Japanese research project, which will receive ¥4.1bn, aims to enable the use of hydrogen fuel cell propulsion systems in aircraft with 80 seats or more by 2031.


The announcement comes just a few weeks after the Japanese government unveiled a $33bn programme to make a home-grown low-carbon regional aircraft that regional aircraft powered by “next generation” technology ­such as hydrogen.


However, experts have long questioned the viability of using pure H2 as a long-distance aviation fuel, due to its relatively low energy density by volume and limited storage space onboard air planes, but a handful of small experimental hydrogen-powered aircraft have taken to the skies (see below for details).


Nevertheless, Japanese governmental research agency New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation (NEDO) said this week it will grant Tokyo-based conglomerate IHI ¥13.2bn from its ¥30bn Next Generation Aircraft Project (itself part of the government's ¥2trn Green Innovation Fund) to develop and test the 4MW fuel cell by 2029.


The goal of the research project is to develop a 4MW fuel-cell electric propulsion system that uses liquid hydrogen to technology readiness level (TRL) 6 — meaning that a prototype has been built and tested in an operational environment ahead of moving into the pilot stage of development.


IHI, which will stump up just 10% of the fuel cell project’s total ¥15.9bn cost, is now tasked with building the fuel cell and demonstrating at least three hours per flight on aircraft with a minimum of 40 seats.


Japanese industrial multinational Toray Industries has been granted ¥4.1bn for the second research project, which aims to develop “core technologies” that will allow the use of hydrogen fuel cells on much bigger aircraft of 80 seats or more.


By March 2031, Toray is aiming to have developed durable, heat-resistant materials such as membranes for fuel cells that “dramatically” improve performance at temperatures of 100°C or more, as well as developing high-density, lightweight materials that can hold large fuel cells stacks in place in an aircraft.


Crucially, researchers are expected to collaborate with international aviation pioneers in order to further H2 technology — a nod to the recent failure of Mitsubishi’s SpaceJet programme, which solely relied on homegrown expertise.


“By developing technology for components that make up fuel-cell electric propulsion systems for aircraft applications, we will encourage the Japanese aircraft industry to participate in and collaborate with overseas companies on development projects,” NEDO said in its announcement.


“Additionally, for each component, we will utilise excellent technology and know-how from other fields as much as possible. In addition, in parallel with technology development, we will participate in international standardisation activities related to the technology.”


In fact, Japanese companies are already collaborating with foreign aviation firms on H2 technology.


Last year, US hydrogen plane developer Universal Hydrogen signed a memorandum of understanding with Japan Airlines and Japanese aviation engineering firm JAL Engineering with a view to retrofitting some of its existing aircraft with Universal’s hydrogen-fuel-cell conversion kits.


However, the number of passengers that can be carried does not necessarily grow with increased fuel-cell size.


Anglo-American hydrogen flight pioneer ZeroAvia’s 600kW fuel cell propulsion system, which was flight-tested last year, is intended to carry up to 19 passengers on a small regional aircraft, with first commercial flights by 2025. The company’s modelling also found that its 2.4MW system, currently under development, could be used on planes capable of carrying up to 60 passengers.


Meanwhile, US-based Universal Hydrogen also carried out a test flight last year, using its 1MW fuel cell propulsion system to power a plane capable of carrying 40 passengers.


Airbus plans to fit and test its 1.2MW propulsion system to its huge A380 aircraft (some variants of which can carry more than 500 passengers), however it is not clear whether it plans to fit multiple units to the machine.


Source: Hydrogeninsight

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