NASA is funding a project to develop a new approach for a fully electric aircraft platform that uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen as an energy storage method.

NASA will provide $6 million over the course of three years to fund CHEETA - the Center for Cryogenic High-Efficiency Electrical Technologies for Aircraft - with the aim being to develop an environmentally-friendly plane. 

The research proposes a fundamental shift away from jet fuel towards more sustainable energy sources for aviation, and the introduction of new electrically-driven propulsion systems for commercial aircraft systems.

A University Leadership Initiative team led by students and faculty from the University of Illinois will examine the use of liquid hydrogen in fuel cells to power an electrically driven aircraft propulsion system. The supercold liquid hydrogen would also be used to enable highly efficient superconducting electrical systems.

Artist’s rendering of an advanced commercial transport aircraft concept utilising CHEETA systems

“Essentially, the program focuses on the development of a fully electric aircraft platform that uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen as an energy storage method,” said Phillip Ansell, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Urbana-Champaign and principal investigator for the project.

“The hydrogen chemical energy is converted to electrical energy through a series of fuel cells, which drive the ultra-efficient electric propulsion system. The low temperature requirements of the hydrogen system also provide opportunities to use superconducting, or lossless, energy transmission and high-power motor systems.”

“It’s similar to how MRIs work, magnetic resonance imaging,” Ansell added.

“However, these necessary electrical drivetrain systems do not yet exist, and the methods for integrating electrically driven propulsion technologies into an aircraft platform have not yet been effectively established. This program seeks to address this gap and make foundational contributions in technologies that will enable fully electric aircraft of the future.”

The CHEETA team aims to develop systems that may one day result in quiet, efficient propulsion systems that produce zero carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions.

Associate Professor Kiruba Haran in University of Illinois’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and co-principal investigator on the project, said, “Advances in recent years on non-cryogenic machines and drives have brought electric propulsion of commercial regional jets closer to reality, but practical cryogenic systems remain the ‘holy grail’ for large aircraft because of their unmatched power density and efficiency,” Haran said. “The partnerships that have been established for this project position us well to address the significant technical hurdles that exist along this path.”

The project includes participation from eight additional institutions: the Air Force Research Laboratory, Boeing Research and Technology, General Electric Global Research, The Ohio State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Arkansas, the University of Dayton Research Institute, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.