Cranfield awarded £69m for R&D hub to demonstrate hydrogen in aviation

Article by Amanda Jasi

THE UK’s Cranfield University will spearhead a £69m (US$87m) research and development hub to demonstrate the potential of hydrogen as a net zero aviation fuel.

Created with the largest investment that the university has ever secured, the Cranfield Hydrogen Integration Incubator (CH2i) will offer an environment to explore how the aviation industry can decarbonise by using hydrogen at scale.

Demand for air travel is increasing with the UK’s Department of Transport projecting that UK passenger traffic could rise from 284m in 2016 to 435m by 2050. Meanwhile, in 2019 UK aviation accounted for around 8% (37.8m t CO2e) of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The government’s Jet Zero Strategy commits the country to achieving net zero emissions in domestic aviation by 2040, with international flights following by 2050.  

Dame Helen Atkinson, co-principal investigator of CH2i, said: “The consortium will bring a ‘systems engineering’ approach, accelerating the integration of hydrogen into airports and aerospace propulsion and delivering next generation technologies. Together we are committed to unlocking hydrogen’s potential for airports and aviation globally, realising our collective ambitions for a more sustainable future.”

Expanding facilities

Cranfield is the only university in Europe that has an airport, research aircraft, and air traffic control facilities. It will use these facilities to demonstrate, test, and advance new technologies, systems, and processes at scale.

CH2i will provide new laboratories, at scale test facilities, and airport infrastructure that will connect and expand existing facilities to support research and development across the whole supply chain, as well as assessment of the environmental impacts of hydrogen-fuelled flight. The investment will also provide new equipment, project management, and staffing support.

Major additions will include extending an existing facility to create a Hydrogen Integration Research Centre. It will offer new labs for analysis, synthesising advanced materials, and testing hydrogen-based technologies. It will also include a dedicated innovation area for developing and demonstrating next generation hydrogen technologies.

Two new test bed facilities will also bolster innovation efforts. The separate facilities will be able to support hydrogen and liquid hydrogen activity, fuel systems, storage, and propulsion system integration at mid- and high-technology readiness levels.

The funding will also allow Cranfield to further develop its existing airport infrastructure, increasing its capability to operate safely and test hydrogen-powered aviation demonstrators.

With this infrastructure in place, CH2i will help deliver tools and technologies that will accelerate the adoption of hydrogen in aviation. This includes production technologies, catalysts, materials, structures, storage tanks, aircraft designs, and engines.

A collaborative hub

CH2i will integrate existing research areas at Cranfield including hydrogen production programmes; the Aerospace Integration Research Centre, which allows development and testing of aerospace technologies; and the Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre, which leads UK research into digital aviation technologies.

It will also link to the Centre for Doctoral Training in Net Zero Aviation, led by Cranfield, which will train students and drive research into technologies to decarbonise aviation.

Further support will come from research and industry partners including Siemens Energy, Heathrow Airport, and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, as well as academic partners that include the UK’s Imperial College London and UK Aerospace Research Consortium.

CH2i will also look to connect academia and industry with government and regulatory authorities to help boost economic growth and skills.

The £69m investment includes £23m from Research England’s Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF), which supports higher education facilities across the UK. An additional £46m was committed by industry partners and academic institutions.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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