Reducing The Risk Of Flying With Hydrogen Fuels

Flight shaming is the hot new thing where people who take more than a handful of trips on an airplane per year are ridiculed for the environmental impact of their travels. It’s one strategy for making flying more sustainable, but it’s simply not viable for ultimately reducing the carbon impact that the airline industries have on the environment.

Electric planes are an interesting place to look for answers. Though carbon-free long haul travel is possible, it’s not a reality for most situations in which people travel today. Current battery technology can’t get anywhere near the energy density of fossil fuels and larger batteries aren’t an option since every pound matters when designing aircraft.

Even with land travel and electric grids improving in their use of renewables and electric power, aviation tends to be difficult to power with anything other than hydrocarbons. Student engineers in the AeroDelft program in the Netherlands have created Project Phoenix to develop an aircraft powered by a liquid hydrogen fuel cell, producing a primary emission of water vapor. So it is an electric plane, but leverages the energy density of hydrocarbons to get around the battery weight problem.

While the project may seem like an enormous reach peppered with potential safety hazards, redundant safety features are used such as sensors and vents in case of a hydrogen leakage, as well as an electric battery in case of failure. Hydrogen produced three times more energy per unit than kerosene, but is six times the volume in gas form and requires cumbersome compression tanks.

Even though hydrogen fuel only produces water vapor as a byproduct, it can still cause greenhouse effects if it is released too high and creates clouds. The team is exploring storage tanks for slow release of the water vapor at more optimal altitudes. On top of that, most hydrogen is produced using steam methane reforming (SMR), creating up to 150g of greenhouse gases per kWh, and electrolysis tends to be more costly and rarely carbon neutral. Alternatives such as solar power, biofuels, and electric power are looking to make headwind as well, but the technology is still far from perfected.

While it’s difficult to predict the success of the project so early on, the idea of reducing risk in hydrogen fuels may not be limited to a handful of companies for very long.

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A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Drone

When we think about hydrogen and flying machines, it’s quite common to imagine Zeppelins, weather balloons and similar uses of hydrogen in lighter-than-air craft to lift stuff of the ground. But with smaller and more efficient fuel cells, hydrogen is gaining its place in the drone field. Project RACHEL is a hydrogen powered drone project that involves multiple companies and has now surpassed the 60 minutes of flight milestone.

The initial target of the project was to achieve 60 minutes of continuous flight while carrying a 5 kg payload. The Lithium Polymer battery-powered UAVs flown by BATCAM allow around 12 minutes of useable flight. The recent test of the purpose-built fuel cell powered UAV saw it fly for an uninterrupted 70 minutes carrying a 5 kg payload.  This was achieved on a UAV with below 20 kg maximum take-off mass, using a 6-litre cylinder containing hydrogen gas compressed to 300 bar.

While this is not world record for drones and it’s not exactly clear if there will be a commercial product nor the price tag, it is still an impressive feat for a fuel cell powered flying device. You can watch the footage of one of their tests bellow:

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Aluminium Pucks Fuel Hydrogen Trucks

In the race toward a future free from fossil fuels, hydrogen is rapidly gaining ground. On paper, hydrogen sounds fantastic — it’s clean-burning with zero emissions, the refuel time is much faster than electric, and hydrogen-fueled vehicles can go longer distances between refuels than their outlet-dependent brethren.

The reality is that hydrogen vehicles usually need fuel cells to convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. They also need pressurized tanks to store the gases and pumps for refueling, all of which adds weight, takes up space, and increases the explosive potential of the system.

Kurt Koehler has a better idea: make the hydrogen on demand, in the vehicle, using a solid catalyst and a simple chemical reaction. Koehler is the founder of Indiana-based startup AlGalCo — Aluminium Gallium Company. After fourteen years of R&D and five iterations of his system, the idea is really starting to float. Beginning this summer, these pucks are going to power a few trucks in a town just outside of Indianapolis.

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Robot Jellyfish Fueled By Hydrogen From The Water Around It

RoboJelly is certainly not what we’re used to seeing when it comes to robots. Instead of a cold metallic skeleton, this softie is modeled after jellyfish which have no bones. But that’s not the only thing that’s unusual about it. This robot also doesn’t carry its own power source. It gets the energy needed for locomotion from the water around it.

Artificial muscles are what give this the movement seen in the clip after the break. These muscles react to heat, and that heat is produced through a chemical reaction. The construction method starts with the muscle material, which is then covered in carbon nanotubes, and finally coated with black platinum dust. Sounds a bit like witchcraft, huh (Eye of newt, dragon heart string, etc.)? We certainly don’t have the chemistry background to understand how this all works. But we are impressed. So far it doesn’t have the ability to change direction, the flexing of all of the muscle material happens at the same time. But the next step in their research will be finding a way to route the “fuel” to give it some direction.

Edit – Looks like it is fueled externally. The actual study is here, but you need to log in to download it.

This brings another jellyfish-inspired robot to mind. Check out FESTO’s offering which flies through the air with the greatest of ease.

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Toyota’s Cartridge Helps Make Hydrogen Portable

Hydrogen has long been touted as the solution to cleaning up road transport. When used in fuel cells, the only emissions from its use are water, and it eliminates the slow recharging problem of battery-electric vehicles. It’s also been put forth as a replacement for everything from natural gas supplies to laptop batteries.

Toyota has been pushing hard for hydrogen technology, and has worked to develop vehicles and infrastructure to this end. The company’s latest efforts involve a toteable hydrogen cartridge – letting you take hydrogen power on the go!

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Hydrogen Generation Made Easy

Even if you never want to generate hydrogen, [Maciej Nowak’s] video (embedded below) is interesting to watch because of the clever way the electrode is formed from stainless steel washers. You’ll need heat shrink tubing, but you ought to have that hanging around anyway. Building the electrode using the techniques in the video results in a lot of surface area which is important for an electrochemical reaction.

A standard rechargeable cell provides power for the generator which resides in a modified plastic bottle. The overall build looks good even though it is all repurposed material.

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Mr Fusion powering a vehicle

Motorsports Are Turning To Alternative Fuels

As the world grapples with the issue of climate change, there’s a huge pressure to move transport away from carbon-based fuels across the board. Whether it’s turning to electric cars for commuting or improving the efficiency of the trucking industry, there’s much work to be done.

It’s a drop in the ocean in comparison, but the world of motorsports has not escaped attention when it comes to cleaning up its act. As a result, many motorsports are beginning to explore the use of alternative fuels in order to reduce their impact on the environment.

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