Hybrid-Electric Power: the Future of the Aerospace Industry
Reducing the CO2 emissions of aircraft, helicopters, satellites and launch vehicles is still one of the most prominent objectives of the aerospace industry. Decarbonization requires various disruptive solutions that mix new fuel types and fledgling technologies, so a collaborative approach to this goal will deliver the fastest results.
The aerospace industry is undergoing a technological transition to improve its value chain and capabilities to meet the needs of the sector. New technologies allow airlines to offer products more flexibly, with better usability, scalability and cost savings, while also embracing sustainability. Among the technologies in the pipeline to speed up decarbonization efforts are hybrid engines.
Airbus is currently evaluating several technologies for hybrid aircraft. These include engines, which can come in two modes: serial and parallel. In a serial architecture, a single mechanical power source drives the propeller or fan, meaning batteries are not the only power source. As far as hybridization is concerned, this is serial architecture’s biggest advantage but it means adding weight in the shape of a generator to convert mechanical power to electrical power. In a parallel architecture, a gas turbine sometimes operates below peak efficiency but a smaller, lighter electric motor can make up the deficit. So a parallel architecture is better suited to hybrid applications, according to Airbus.
When it comes to battery breakthroughs, the main shortcoming of current-generation batteries is their low energy density compared to kerosene and hydrogen combustion. A compromise has to be found between performance, volume and mass in an aircraft’s weight-sensitive, aerodynamically-optimized environment. “We are looking at technologies already deployed in the automotive sector, which drives the market,” says Leire Segura, Electrical Generation Systems Expert, Airbus. Li-Ion is a big step forward, already delivering significant performance gains compared to Nickel-Cadmium. Lastly, whatever the technology, batteries need to be charged. The latter requires infrastructure investments that would be offset by fuel savings in the long term. Where ground infrastructure is lacking, the aircraft’s engines could also recharge the batteries during the cruise phase of a flight.
A range of technologies is required to meet the aviation industry’s decarbonization ambitions, which means radical shifts in propulsion are on their way, such as hybrid-powered aircraft. “It is a major challenge that the industry will answer collectively with engine manufacturers and other industries such as automotive. In November 2022, Airbus and Renault Group signed a research and development agreement that aims to leverage synergies to accelerate both companies’ electrification roadmaps,” says Airbus.
These hybrid-electric models are only some of the sustainability projects that Airbus is exploring. Airbus also launched the ZEROe demonstrator to test hydrogen combustion technology on an A380 multimodal platform. Through ground and flight testing, Airbus “expects to achieve a mature technology readiness level for a hydrogen-combustion propulsion system by 2025,” Damien Sternchuss, Vice President and Head of Airline Marketing for Latin America and the Caribbean, Airbus, told Mexico Business News. The ZEROe concept aircraft are powered by hydrogen combustion through modified gas turbine engines and aim to become the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.