Dry wings, fuel cells and gas turbines among zero-carbon technology opportunities UK aerospace sector could seize

  • Government-backed project identifies key technologies for realising zero-carbon emission flight highlighting opportunities for UK aerospace in report published today: UK Capability in Zero-Carbon Aircraft Technologies
  • FlyZero regional concept shows fuel cell technology and electric drivetrains on a 75-seater aircraft.

Zero-carbon technologies including dry-wings, fuel cells and hydrogen gas turbines could secure market share and jobs for the UK aerospace sector, the ATI’s FlyZero project has reported.

Today, the UK has world-leading capability in aerospace technologies including wings, aerodynamic structures, fuel systems and gas turbines and a new generation of these will be essential to making zero-carbon emission flight a reality. The FlyZero project has identified market opportunities for the UK aerospace sector as aviation turns to zero-carbon aircraft powered by liquid hydrogen.

Led by the Aerospace Technology Institute and backed by the UK government, FlyZero began in early 2021 as an intensive research project investigating zero-carbon emission commercial flight. The independent study has brought together experts from companies across the UK to assess the design challenges, manufacturing demands, operational requirements and market opportunity of potential zero-carbon emission aircraft concepts.

In September 2021, FlyZero concluded that green liquid hydrogen is the most viable zero-carbon emission fuel with the potential to scale to larger aircraft utilising fuel cell, gas turbine and hybrid systems. Now, in its latest report UK Capability in Zero-Carbon Aircraft Technologies, the project highlights dry wings, fuel cell technology and hydrogen gas turbines as areas the UK could invest in now to secure increased global market share and jobs.

The report notes: “New zero-carbon emission aircraft will require development of disruptive technology. To win content on these aircraft, UK companies must be ready to demonstrate new systems based on disruptive technologies in the next one to two years for sub-regional aircraft and by 2025 for larger aircraft.”

The report released today identifies proton exchange membrane (PEM) found in fuel cells as one of the technologies that could catalyse growth: “The UK is leading in proton exchange membrane technology within the fuel cell sector, making this a potential area of high opportunity for a UK ‘play to win’.”

Hydrogen fuel cell systems convert hydrogen fuel and oxygen into electricity through the reverse electrolysis process. In proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, this works by passing hydrogen through a catalyst (anode) which splits the fuel into positive ions and negative electrons. The positive ions pass through a semipermeable membrane while the negative electrons travel around an external circuit to a cathode, creating an electric current.

In regional and sub-regional aircraft applications, the electricity generated can be used to power electric motors which drive the propellers. These high-power electric motor drivetrains are another area of opportunity identified in the report for the UK to establish itself as a global supplier.

When hydrogen is used in a fuel cell the only by-product is water, eliminating all in-flight carbon emissions as well as NOx and particulates. Research into the best method for managing water emissions from hydrogen fuel is ongoing. The weight of a fuel cell and its cryogenic fuel system means they are well suited for regional aircraft and FlyZero’s regional aircraft concept sets out what this type of aircraft could look like in future.

The UK is world-leading in the design and manufacture of gas turbines with Rolls-Royce, as well as wings and sub-structures through Airbus, Spirit AeroSystems and GKN Aerospace all operating in this space. Sub-tier technology providers, who provide materials, manufacturing and assembly technologies, as well as sub-components for manufacturing, are also well established across the UK. New technology development allows opportunities for these companies to increase investment in the UK and for those operating in adjacent sectors such as space and automotive to expand.

While kerosene-powered aircraft store fuel in the wings, liquid hydrogen will be stored in the fuselage or cheek tanks. This presents challenges and opportunities for radically new wing design and airframe integrated cryogenic fuel systems to move liquid hydrogen from the tank to a gas turbine or fuel cell. The report identifies Airbus, Eaton, Cobham Mission Systems, Parker Hannifin and Meggitt as all having specialism in fuel systems for conventional aircraft here in the UK.

To become a reality, liquid hydrogen powered aircraft will require cryogenic capability. Establishing design, build and test capability in the UK would accelerate technology development and secure future aerospace market share for the UK. The report, informed through engagement with more than 40 companies in respective specialisms concludes:

  • Founding a hydrogen technology centre to act as a centre of excellence and bring together skilled individuals, prototyping and test facilities would be a key enabler and provide an anchor for the hydrogen industry in the UK.
  • Providing funding beyond initial R&D must be considered to create and secure the UK industrial footprint. Reducing the risk and cost of bringing revolutionary technologies to market can drive the required scale and pace of development.
  • Where the development of highly novel disruptive technologies is required, the supply chain would benefit from shorter (12-18 month) investment projects in order to develop and secure intellectual property (IP) with appropriate funding mechanisms to support this.

Chris Gear, project director said: “The UK has a proud history of aerospace manufacturing and this report identifies some of the key opportunities for the sector as it transitions to zero-carbon emission technologies.

“FlyZero is setting out a route to reality for the design, manufacture and certification of the next generation technologies needed to get zero-carbon commercial flight off the ground at scale.”

Preview of the FlyZero regional aircraft concept

Some of the technologies identified in the report are seen in FlyZero’s regional aircraft concept which could carry 75 passengers at similar speeds and comfort as today’s regional aircraft. The aircraft cruise speed of 325 kts and range of 800 nautical miles bridges across existing turboprops and regional jets. It means flights from London to Rome are possible, but this aircraft type tends to operate routes up to half that distance.

Powered by liquid hydrogen, the fuel is stored in cryogenic fuel tanks at around minus 250 degrees Celsius in the aft fuselage alongside the fuel cell system. An electrical distribution system transports the electrical power out to the wings. Each wing has three propellers driven by electric motors. The nacelles contain the electric motors, power electronics and heat exchangers for the fuel cell heat management system.

In March 2022, detailed findings from the FlyZero project will be published including the three final aircraft concepts (regional, narrowbody and midsize), technology roadmaps, market and economic reports and a sustainability assessment. These outputs will help shape the future of global aviation with the intention of gearing up the UK to stand at the forefront of sustainable flight in design, manufacture, technology and skills for years to come.

FlyZero Regional aircraft concept high-res images

FlyZero regional concept – In flight 1

FlyZero regional concept – In flight 2

FlyZero regional concept – Jersey Airport

FlyZero regional concept – On ground