Earlier this year, I wrote an article introducing many of you to the world of fuel cells, notably hydrogen fuels cells, whose primary emission is water. Here is an overview of what a fuel cell is:
Defining fuel cells
The simplest way to describe a fuel cell is that it is an electrochemical reactor. The reactor converts the chemical energy of its fuel, along with an oxidant (oxygen) directly into electricity. In the modern fuel cell, hydrogen carries the energy, and by reacting with oxygen they form electricity.
In the fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are introduced separately. Hydrogen molecules enter the hydrogen electrode (called an anode), release its electrons to form a positively charged hydrogen ion, then reaches the oxygen. They flow into an electrical circuit. Residual hydrogen ions and electrons bond with oxygen from the air to form water vapor, the only byproduct of the process! The reaction between the hydrogen and oxygen is remarkably simple, represented by an equally simple equation: 2H2+O2=2H20.
Last month, a modified Piper Meridian six-seater aircraft took off from Cranfield Airport in England and became the world’s first hydrogen fuel-cell-powered flight for a commercial-size aircraft. The plane’s powertrain was built by ZeroAvia
, a US and UK-based company developing hydrogen-electric engines. Using liquid hydrogen to feed an electric battery, the technology eliminates carbon emissions during the flight.
Now, there is a long way still to go before this technology impacts large-scale jets. In all likelihood, larger jets will incorporate hydrogen fuel cell technology as part of the overall power matrix, thus getting significant (but not total) reductions in CO2 emissions. There are forecasts for up to a 75% reduction in fossil fuel usage by the year 2035 for jets with 200-seat capacity.
With funding from UK government-backed bodies including the Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK, ZeroAvia founder and CEO Val Miftakhov wants to close the gap between now and 2035 as aviation technology develops, and provide a sustainable solution for short and medium haul flights.
Miftakhov, who piloted ZeroAvia’s test flight, says the company’s technology is designed to be retrofitted into existing aircraft. He claims that ZeroAvia will have hydrogen-powered commercial planes taking to the sky in just three years.
So as we move into the final weeks of an election year where climate change has played zero role in the debates, we’ve at least got that to look forward to.