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STFC team involved in ground-breaking study to find a truly green aviation power system

25 August 2020

A team from STFC has recently completed a joint Proof of Concept study with the company Reaction Engines to determine whether the company’s innovative thermal management technology could be combined with STFC’s world-class catalysts to create a truly green aviation system based on ammonia fuel.

The findings of this study could have huge implications for the aviation industry and the wider UK target of being carbon neutral by 2050. With a follow-on demonstrator integrating the technology into a ground-based test engine planned, zero emissions flight could be a reality in a matter of years.

The project came about through the Harwell Cross Cluster Proof of Concept Programme that unites organisations across the energy, space and life sciences sectors, creates collaborations and provides funding that moves research from theory towards commercial success. Funding is provided by STFC and the programme is driven by the Harwell Campus Clusters.

Decarbonizing the aviation industry is one of the great challenges of our age. Most modern aircraft are powered by kerosene and the emissions generated from this method of propulsion contribute a significant amount to the total global greenhouse gas production.

The new propulsion system was devised by Reaction Engines and investigated by a team from STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source Research Facility and STFC’s Technology Department. It would have the potential to efficiently crack the ammonia fuel using heat harvested from the jet engine through ground-breaking heat exchangers to provide a zero-carbon fuel blend of ammonia and hydrogen that burns stably just like jet fuel. The density of liquid ammonia allows for conventional aircraft configurations to be used and it may be possible to retrofit into an existing engine, resulting in a zero-carbon jet that could start serving the short haul market well before the 2050 target currently set by the industry.

Professor Bill David from STFC and the University of Oxford had this to say regarding the potential of ammonia as a jet engine fuel:

“We are optimistic about progress having recently completed the first stage of laboratory tests where we successfully produced the combination of ammonia and hydrogen that mimics jet fuel. Our next step is to scale up to small aviation scale and we are confident that we will achieve this goal. Green ammonia storage and real-zero ammonia-hydrogen fuel mixtures have the potential, not only to enable carbon-free, and indeed guilt-free, aviation but also, in time, to completely remove our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Dr James Barth, engineering lead at Reaction Engines added:

“The combination of Reaction Engines’ transformative heat exchanger technology and the STFC’s innovative catalysts will enable development of a game-changing class of green ammonia-based aviation propulsion systems. Our study showed that an ammonia-fuelled jet engine could be adapted from currently available engines, and ammonia as a fuel doesn’t require a complete re-think of the design of civil aircraft as we know them today.”

Last updated: 04 September 2020


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