New hydrogen-powered electric aircraft research set for take-off

17 April 2023

A new £1.4 million project to develop game-changing hydrogen-powered electric aircraft is set to begin at the University of Bath / IAAPS. Renowned researcher Dr Xiaoze Pei, Director of Research Quality at IAAPS, is aiming to develop new power systems that will help to reduce the environmental impact of air travel, after being awarded a prestigious five-year EPSRC Open Fellowship.

As the aviation industry faces challenges to reduce carbon emissions and a need to develop new technologies, electric aircraft present a host of potential benefits, including eliminating in-flight emissions and reducing noise, while the liquid hydrogen fuel needed could be created using renewable energy.

Entitled ‘Towards Zero Emissions Electric Aircraft through Superconducting DC Distribution Network’, the fellowship will develop answers to hurdles that have until now stood in the way of hydrogen-powered aircraft taking to the skies, namely questions around the power density and efficiency, safety and reliability of on-board electric distribution network.

Dr Pei's ground-breaking research has been widely recognised and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the UK Aerospace Technology Institute, and the Royal Society.

Her research on applied superconducting and cryogenic power electronics has enabled the development of next-generation cryogenic and superconductivity powertrains.

The proposed use of liquid hydrogen as a fuel source would mean aircraft would create a cryogenic environment in which to run the power system. This presents new opportunities to exploit high-temperature superconductors and the improved efficiency of a direct current (DC) distribution network, as well as the lower weight of such a system compared with alternating current (AC) set-ups.

During the Fellowship, Dr Pei and team members will work to develop on-board superconducting DC distribution networks for electric aircraft. They will also investigate how to address highly demanding safety and reliability requirements.

Key to the project will be efforts to develop the first reliable high-power density and high efficiency cryogenic and superconducting DC distribution network, to be achieved by combining new numerical and experimental methods.

Collaborating with leading industrial partners Airbus UpNext and IXYS UK Westcode Ltd, Dr Pei's team will demonstrate the viability of this innovative technology for future commercial zero-emissions and low-noise electric aircraft. This collaboration will facilitate the development of a game-changing power system that could revolutionise air travel. Her research has the potential to transform the field and pave the way for a cleaner, greener future for air travel.

Dr Pei says: “I have a vision to achieve net-zero transport, with an emphasis on large-scale electric aircraft. On-board electrical power distribution, control and protection remain significant challenges relating to large-scale hydrogen-powered electric aircraft. This Fellowship will tackle these challenges together in a holistic approach to develop a reliable and highly efficient superconducting DC distribution network to act as a key enabler to achieve zero emissions electric aircraft.”

Tops of trees with a silhouette of an aeroplane

17 April 2023