Moving away from oil: Fuel cells for aviation fuel cell innovation

Written by Ranga Gunasekera, CNN Hydrogen fuel cells are the perfect solution to the shortfalls in the growth of aviation fuel. That’s the take-away from Accenture’s recently published report. The thinking behind hydrogen is…

Moving away from oil: Fuel cells for aviation fuel cell innovation

Written by Ranga Gunasekera, CNN

Hydrogen fuel cells are the perfect solution to the shortfalls in the growth of aviation fuel. That’s the take-away from Accenture’s recently published report.

The thinking behind hydrogen is simple. Instead of refining oil, you switch to fuel cells, where hydrogen is fed into an electrolyser (a reaction medium) that converts it into electrical power.

The batteries that power electric cars (electricity is actually charged while the car is in motion), as well as the fuel for induction cooking (underground fuel oil heaters), are two of the most basic sources of energy. For its next-generation, emissions-free airport fuel cell system, the airline company is looking to save on these as well as one of the industry’s least sustainable sources of fuel — jet fuel.

As electricity demand continues to rise, the need for alternative sources of fuel will continue to increase.

Supportive governments

In the short-term, fuel cell power plants may take a back seat to liquid natural gas (LNG), according to Marco Patafio, Accenture’s program leader of passenger technologies, who explained how France has prepared the market through its announcement earlier this year to open a new LNG terminal at Paris-Charles de Gaulle International Airport.

The terminal was built as part of an agreement between the European Union and the Algerian government, and will provide about 2.5 million tons of LNG per year, roughly in line with the requirement for the next two years (the terminal was opened in August 2018). With many other countries lining up for their own LNG supply, the fuel makes sense for the aviation industry.

“In the future, different countries will see that they should take advantage of this gas, and they’ll open ports and terminals like that,” Patafio said. “The difference here is that a new country could open this terminal and make its own fuel, at a price point that would make it competitive compared to diesel or jet fuel.”

l e v a r t

While France is setting the standard for government support of alternative fuel sources, other countries could follow suit.

“The Paris Airports Group is working closely with Fuel Cell Airport Solutions, working together with Abu Dhabi Airports Company, and EVA Airways to develop support for fuel cells in their respective airports,” James McKenzie, the chief executive of Fuel Cell Airport Solutions (FCAS), told CNN.

“We are convinced that a strong commitment to developing fuelling infrastructure is absolutely crucial to making fuel cells a commercially viable technology in the aviation sector.”

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global aviation industry needs an additional $123 billion by 2023 to refuel 100,000 additional flights per day, and $178 billion over the next three years to renew the global fuel supply.

With such significant funding needs, adoption of alternatives such as fuel cells will only increase if the government supports them, according to Peter Randsen, a business partner with Brand Strategy Consultants who used to run IATA’s Corporate Engagement and Marketing Group.

“Fuel cells have all the qualities that can make them a competitive fuel for aviation,” he explained. “They are much cleaner, safer, low carbon and they use only water and hydrogen.

“In some ways, it’s a no-brainer.”

Extending its reach

Of course, that question is whether it’s a no-brainer for the global airline industry, which has reached fuel production quotas.

“One of the things we really need to see is that the fuel-cell market is not a supplementary fuel,” said Randsen. “That is not a very positive thing in the aviation industry. It allows you to really move away from being a commercial aircraft to a smart vehicle.”

That’s not to say that you can’t provide alternative solutions on short haul, according to Randsen. “Long haul is where the problems become a bit more difficult,” he said. “You could use a fuel cell on a domestic flight for an hour and a half, maybe.”

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