A little hydrogen in a world of kerosene



Hycarus (1) is four years old and is very healthy. He is also the focus of all Aline Hoffmann's attention. Aline Hoffmann is an Air Liquide engineer, and Hycarus is the code name given to a research project on a fuel cell intended for the aviation industry. It aims to find new ways of generating electricity on board flights. And things are not necessarily always simple…

Aline, can you tell us about your career before you joined Air Liquide?

After my studies at Compiègne Technology University, I specialized in processes and the thermal and energy industries. One subject in particular interested me: biogas. I like the idea of turning waste into a source of energy! Nowadays, one can produce hydrogen from biomethane. This hydrogen is central to the Hycarus project. It's true that I wasn’t familiar with the aeronautics or aviation industries before, but as an engineer, I believe that any subject can be interesting. My job is to solve problems. Before joining Air Liquide, my first job was in tractor accreditation services!

Beyond its primary mission, Hycarus opens new perspectives.

Hycarus was initially designed to provide electricity for the kitchen area (called the galley). The results obtained could then be used in other applications. For example, to replace the RAT (Ram Air Turbine), the small, emergency wind turbine that planes deploy to generate electricity, allowing it to land in the event of engine failure. Or to supply the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit), namely the generator that powers various onboard systems when the plane is grounded with the engines off. But then nothing prevents us from imagining a future where planes are powered exclusively by electricity produced from hydrogen!

Air Liquide has developed a high-pressure hydrogen storage tank.

As an engineer, what fascinates you about this project?

It's the number of issues that must be dealt with. That goes from equipment design to questions of security. A very simple example: how do we evacuate the hydrogen in the event of overpressure? Outside, of course, with a pipe. But what happens if the gas ignites outside, bearing in mind that the plane's walls, which are relatively thin, must not overheat... This is just one of many issues.

So how do you resolve all these very concrete issues when Hycarus is still just a tool in the modelling phase?

That's what explains why a project like this takes so long. I have been working on it from the start, nearly full time. There was a first six-month phase to define the various players' needs and performance requirements (quantity of hydrogen necessary, flow rates, safety needs, etc.). The second phase involved finding the components of our fuel cell. Bearing in mind that components for hydrogen in the aeronautics industry don't exist!  And few suppliers were able to get involved in the project for insurance reasons. We therefore had to rely on the expertise we acquired in the development of hydrogen charging stations, and selecting high-performance components that are likely to pass aeronautics qualification testing.

Then comes the assembly phase.

That's the third step. And the design must consider all the constraints of the aeronautics industry in terms of security, vibrations, weight, volume, etc. We have to justify every single choice we make. It's also during assembly that we realize the limits of 3D design. We always have a few surprises! But if there weren't any problems there would be no engineers...

What is the current status of the Hycarus project?

Trials are underway on the tank and the fuel cell is being tested by Zodiac Aerospace. It will then undergo various environmental qualification tests. But the big day will be the first flight test at the end of 2017.

Confident ?

Yes ! I can't wait ! 

More information on www.hycarus.eu 

HYCARUS (HYdrogen Cells for AiRborne USage)

A European project initiated by the FCH JU(2) (Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking),aiming to show that hydrogen can be used to power fuel cells and thereby supply electricity on aircraft. For this, Air Liquide has been working in collaboration with Zodiac Aerospace, Dassault, and the CEA since 2013.

Air Liquide has developed a high-pressure hydrogen storage tank that is big enough to carry the required mass. This gas must be compressed to an acceptable pressure for a fuel cell, which then produces electricity.

(1) In partnership with Zodiac Aerotechnics (coordinator), CEA, Dassault Aviation, JRC-IET, l'INTA, ARTTIC, Zodiac Aeroelectric, Zodiac Galleys Europe sro, Zodiac CABIN & CONTROL


(2) FCH JU: A public/private partnership with three members: the European Union represented by the European Commission, European industries represented by NEW IG group, and the scientific world represented by N.ERGHY group. The project Hycarus has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) for the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative under grant agreement n° 325342. 

© Laurent Lelong

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