German team to trial fuel-cell power unit for passenger planes

Portable power units that fit within an aircraft’s trolley carts could help operators meet an anticipated shortfall in available on-board energy it has been claimed.

With the technology available in passenger sections of aircraft putting growing pressures on energy use, the hydrogen fuel-cell based unit, developed by researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT, Diehl Aerospace GmbH and the German Aerospace Center DLR, could help operators avoid the need for costly and time-consuming design changes.

The device could be used to help relieve the energy shortfall onboard passenger planes
The device could be used to help relieve the energy shortfall onboard passenger planes

The technology, which is being demonstrated for the first time at next week’s Paris airshow, is fuelled by propylene glycol, a non-combustible, non-toxic liquid that is already used in aircraft as a coolant and de-icing agent.

A chemical system, the reformer, breaks down the liquid and extracts the hydrogen, which flows directly into the fuel cell and thus, energises it. The rerformer also transforms the carbon monoxide resulting from this hydrogen production into carbon dioxide.  

The research team has already produced a mock-up of the reformer and over the next few months, plans to assemble and test the very first prototype.
According to the team, the technology could avoid the protracted issue of having to substantially redesign the passenger sections of aircraft cabins whilst meeting the growing need for on-board energy.  “This new power source lets us eliminate the energy shortfall,” said project leader Prof. Dr. Gunther Kolb, Department Head at ICT-IMM.