Airbus Explores If Hydrogen Could Make Large Electric Aircraft A Reality

Airbus is looking to a century-old technology to provide solutions for large-scale electrification of flight. Superconductivity, first identified in 1911, reduces resistance in electrical systems, and could be the answer to getting large planes off the ground and flying long distances powered only by electricity. The project, ASCEND, which stands for Advanced Superconducting and Cryogenic Experimental powertraiN Demonstrator, is part of the Airbus UpNext initiative.

ZEROe aircraft
Airbus believes that superconductivity could hold the key to large aircraft electrification. Photo: Airbus

Does superconductivity hold the solution to electric flight?

Airbus is looking to make a major breakthrough in electric propulsion for long-range aircraft as part of its UpNext project. UpNext seeks to focus on upcoming flying technologies, evaluating, maturing and validating new products and services that will change the way we fly in the future.

Part of this project is about decarbonization and has already begun developing initiatives such as the MAVERIC blended wing body aircraft and the fello’fly wake retrieval experiments. Now, Airbus has revealed a new demonstrator it is calling ASCEND, which stands for Advanced Superconducting and Cryogenic Experimental powertraiN Demonstrator.

The demonstrator is taking the concept of superconductivity and applying it to aviation. More than 100 years ago, Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes found that by immersing a wire made of solid mercury into liquid helium at -268.95°C, the electrical resistance completely vanished. Airbus wants to apply this model to aircraft, with a view to scaling up electrical propulsion for larger aircraft.

The problem of large electric aircraft

One of the biggest challenges in electrifying large aircraft is the weight involved. Today’s electrical systems are unable to meet the power requirements of a large, long-range plane without adding ridiculous amounts of weight to the aircraft.

Back in 2019, Andreas Klöckner, Coordinator Electric Flying Program Strategy Aeronautics at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), noted that, to get an A320 sized aircraft off the ground, the battery would take up almost the entire fuselage. Anything bigger, such as an A350, would make the task impossible.

However, Airbus believes that high-temperature superconducting technologies are emerging as a promising solution. By increasing power density in the propulsion chain while significantly lowering the distribution system’s mass, Airbus believes that long-range, large aircraft electrification could be within reach.

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ASCEND will demonstrate the possibilities

Airbus wants to demonstrate the potential for using superconducting materials combined with cryogenic temperatures to achieve large plane electrical flight through the ASCEND program. Using liquid hydrogen at temperatures as low as -253°C, it hopes to show that the performance of electric propulsion systems can be significantly increased.

ASCEND will explore the feasibility of these technologies for low-emission and zero-emission flight. This will be done using an on-ground demonstrator, built at Airbus’ E-Aircraft System House. Evaluations will be completed by the end of 2023, and will consider solutions that can be adapted to turboprop, turbofan and hybrid propeller engines.

ASCEND Infographic
Graphic: Airbus

Sandra Bour Schaeffer, Airbus UpNext CEO, commented on the project saying,

“With the ASCEND demonstrator, we’ll pave the way for a real breakthrough in electric propulsion for future aircraft. The importance of this work can’t be understated: cryogenic and superconducting technologies could be key enablers to enhancing the performance of low-emission technologies, which will be essential to achieving our ambitious decarbonisation targets.”

Airbus is already looking into the use of liquid hydrogen for use in an internal combustion engine or fuel cell as part of its ZEROe program. Therefore, this demonstrator will complement that research and provide additional insight into the future of aircraft engine technology.