Hydrogen-Powered Aircraft: What are the Challenges?

With the race to net zero playing an increasingly crucial part throughout all sectors, companies must adapt quickly and identify newer, innovative solutions to replace traditional components and/or processes.

Within the aviation industry, we’re seeing the rise of eVOTL concepts which challenge the traditional ideas of urban mobility. When it comes to the likes of commercial aircraft, hydrogen is becoming a key contender, with each big player talking about it.

For hydrogen technology to become a viable solution for aviation, the industry needs to overcome a few challenges. From aircraft architecture and design – specifically in areas of fuselage redesign and hydrogen storage integration to issues surrounding the hydrogen supply chain, we will explore the challenges the industry is facing concerning hydrogen and hydrogen-powered aircraft and the potential solutions which may help companies to overcome these.

Hydrogen Powered Aircraft What are the Challenges

The Challenges of Hydrogen-Powered Aircraft:

Hydrogen-Powered Aircraft Architecture

The aircraft design methodology utilises existing conventionally powered aircraft. It can analyse both conventional and hydrogen fuel cell powertrains and compare the performances of current and future technologies. With all design needs stabilised, the first step in the design process is defining aircraft architecture with the initial space allocation and arrangement of sub-systems such as the fuel tank and fuel cells.

Hydrogen Storage

The main challenge in hydrogen-powered aircraft architecture is its low volumetric density. If powered by hydrogen, the aircraft would require four to five times the volume of conventional fuel to carry the same onboard energy. Providing hydrogen in gas form also requires a lot of storage volume. The compression required by the storage volume can then increase costs and energy needs. As a result, storage can get heavy. At the same time, the mass of liquid hydrogen tanks must decrease by 50%.

Because of this, hydrogen storage appears to be a materials science challenge of trying to identify lightweight materials that will not react with hydrogen. Therefore, a better understanding of its interactions with other elements (such as metals or composites) is crucial.

How can the 3DEXPERIENCE Platform help?

From using 1D analysis for systems engineering to 3D assessment that focuses on materials on the platform – manufacturers can observe and experience aircraft design in different operating conditions. In the case of liquid hydrogen tanks, the platform’s unique solutions allow designers and engineers to evaluate the pressure and temperature stratification within the tank at the design stage.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

A hydrogen fuel cell uses hydrogen’s chemical energy to produce electricity. Adding energy storage (such as a battery) to this system helps ensure fast load following and power peak shaving, and in turn, these two outcomes will optimise the sizing of the fuel cell system. The most advanced and suitable option for aviation today comprises low-temperature proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells.

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform supports accurate sourcing and testing at component, sub-system and system levels. Working on the platform allows manufacturers to simulate polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells and cell stacks for pre-design, control strategy evaluation or loss analysis. As a result, they can predict a complete fuel cell’s performance at scale.

Hydrogen-Fueled Engines

Hydrogen-powered engines will have to be more efficient and emit only non-CO2 emissions like nitrogen oxides (NOx). All development stages managed by engine manufacturers must be accelerated to ensure entry into service within the decade.

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform helps manufacturers define design details with precision. What’s more, they can easily focus on specific hydrogen-related engine sub-systems such as fuel injectors and experience their design via integrated modelling and simulation

Industry Standards & Certification

To obtain type certificates enabling them to fly, OEMs must demonstrate their aircraft safety to certification authorities. The existing certificates for conventional rotorcraft or fixed-wing aircraft currently do not match the particularities of hydrogen configurations. Therefore, companies must first accelerate the development and deployment of new technologies. Commercialisation and aircraft certification can take more than ten years to complete, while substantial fleet replacement would require an additional decade.

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform helps OEMs build a regulations pipeline and crawl airworthiness authorities’ websites easily. It enables them to create a transparent scientific pipeline that manages means of compliance, virtual models, methods, mathematical formulas and previous results.

Supply Chain & Infrastructure

While not usually considered as an initial challenge, supply chain and infrastructure will play a large part in the success and adoption of hydrogen-powered aircraft. This shift will require airports to reinvent their existing infrastructure and logistical systems.

Arguably the most serious matter is that hydrogen is highly explosive at ambient temperatures. As such, storage tanks must stay outside of the airfield to reduce the chances of chain-reaction explosions. Following this, a significant increase in overall storage space must be expected. These tanks must also be kept at -253°C to keep hydrogen in its safe-to-use liquid form, which generates a new level of safety management and logistical complexities. Meanwhile, hydrogen must be transported from its producer to the airport at the most minimal cost possible. Doing so prevents overall hydrogen adoption costs from increasing.

So, while hydrogen-powered aircraft are looking to be driving the next era of aviation, there are still plenty of challenges and considerations we must overcome before they become the new norm. As discussed in this article, the 3DEXPERIENCE Platform can help companies navigate these challenges and succeed in the race to reinvent the skies.