Electric aircraft tutorialsPowering up a new era in flight

Airbus is flying toward the future of aviation with its innovative electric and hybrid aircraft research. Join the company on this journey: this section provides regular updates for an in-depth look at the disruptive technologies and concepts that are supporting its ambitious e-aircraft goals.

Fuel Cells: a groundbreaking idea for electric propulsion

Imagine a short-range commercial aircraft that is powered by hydrogen fuel, and emits no harmful gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s the potential of fuel cells.

This exciting concept for electric propulsion is one of the many promising ideas that could play a huge role in helping the aviation industry reach its ambitious environmental targets. 

“Fuel cells are far out, but maybe not too far away,” explained Christian Wolff, Head of the Electrochemical Systems Team – as part of the Airbus’s research and technology network, which is leading the E-Fan programme and the company’s electric-airplane initiatives.

Fuel cells: How they work

For aviation applications, hydrogen/air fuel cells could produce electric power in the 15-MW range that is necessary for commercial aircraft jet engines. 

In these low temperature proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, hydrogen fuel is supplied to the fuel cell’s anode. In the anode, an electro-chemical reaction separates the hydrogen into negatively-charged electrons and positively-charged protons.

The electrons create an electrical current that is distributed through a circuit, while the protons travel through a substance called a proton exchange membrane (PEM), which blocks all electrons.

The future vision: Bringing fuel cells to aviation

Airbus researchers are exploring the application of fuel cells integrated directly into the aircraft electric engine. 

For this configuration fuel cells are arranged as multiple “stacks” directly alongside an electric engine. They are positioned around the inner fixed structure that encases the engine’s fan blades, along with magnets on the rotor and coils on the stator.

The revolutionary idea is that the fuel cells’ direct current output is transferred directly to the motor coils thus driving the fan blades directly without heavy wiring, bus bars, converters, or batteries.

Fuel cells generate electrical current by converting chemical energy to electrical energy, and – unlike batteries, which have a fixed supply of energy – can continuously provide energy as long as fuel is supplied. The only by-products of the chemical reaction are water and heat.

This artist’s concept represents a potential configuration for integrated fuel cells in an electric engine. (M. Schumacher, Airbus)

On the other side of the cell’s PEM is its cathode, where oxygen (air) is supplied to the system. The protons – arriving through the PEM – and electrons, returning from the electrical circuit, bond with the oxygen to form the cell’s two waste products: water (H2O) and heat. In aircraft, the fuel cells would be cooled by airflow through the electric engines. 

“Exploring fuel cells deeper is important as we study technologies and concepts that could bring about a new generation of electric aircraft. A breakthrough in fuels cells for aviation could be game-changer!”

Christian WolffHead of the Electrochemical Systems Team at Airbus Innovations

“Fuel cells are part of the wide range of long-term concepts under consideration by the Group for electric and hybrid aircraft,” Wolff said. “We know the basic elements exist and are exploring how to optimize them for a new-generation of more electric aircraft.”

Airbus Innovations and Airbus have developed a demonstrator to test integrated fuel cell applications in e-aircraft.

The “buzz” on Airbus’ e-aircraft development

Stay up-to-date with tutorials on the advanced technologies and concepts that are making electric aviation a reality for the Airbus: