Airbus has joined as a partner in AeroDelft, the Delft student team working on an aircraft powered by a liquid hydrogen fuel cell. How does the European aircraft manufacturer and other partners work with AeroDelft?
Student teams are a well-known fact in technical universities, for example the solar-powered cars developed by students. The Brunel Solar Team from TU Delft won the Sasol Solar Challenge in South Africa in September this year.
The idea behind AeroDelft is not very different. “The entire team at AeroDelft also changes every academic year,” says team leader Wouter van der Linden. “There are 45 students this year, half of them full-time. They have often just finished their bachelor’s degree and are taking a year off from their studies. The others work part-time and also take a few courses.”
AeroDelft was founded in 2018, now with the fifth group of students. Unlike the solar cars that are rebuilt every year, AeroDelft continues to work with the existing design every year.
AeroDelft took its first big, visible step forward this past summer. Then flew a prototype with a wingspan of 5.7m with a battery-powered electric motor. In 2023, this smaller variant, 1:3 scale of an e-genius glider, will begin flying with first a gaseous hydrogen fuel cell and later that year with liquid hydrogen.
Aerodelft also received a Sling 4 in summer 2021; a 920 kg two-seater with a wingspan of 10 metres. With this, AeroDelft hopes to be able to fly with gaseous hydrogen in 2024. A year later, the final goal should have been reached. Then the students hope to use liquid hydrogen as an energy source.
“One of the biggest challenges is how to store the hydrogen,” says Van der Linden. “Hydrogen’s energy density is high, but if you want to fly in gaseous form, you must have a large and heavy tank to withstand the great pressure. That is why we ultimately want to fly with liquid hydrogen, so that the heavy tank for the high pressure is no longer necessary.”
“Current aircraft designs therefore have their shortcomings. Only from around 2060 will hydrogen the way to go for long-haul flights, I expect. Until then, you can work on a radically new design, for example a blended wing body design, where it will be easier to store hydrogen. In the short term, it is particularly interesting for short- or medium-haul aircraft, such as a two-seater flying from Rotterdam to London.”
Proof of concept
The idea behind AeroDelft is not to come up with that solution. “It’s more of a proof of concept. If we as a student team can achieve it in a few years, the big players should also succeed. And with that, we hope to accelerate the use of hydrogen.”
These big players also like to work with AeroDelft. The list of partners is long: From Holland Aerospace Center (NLR) and TNO to large international parties such as AkzoNobel, AirTech Europe and now also Airbus. “Some partners give money or products, we have a lot of contact with other partners, or they have engineers who regularly come by to give input. With Airbus, we are still at the beginning and looking at where the collaboration will go.”
The partners are so interested in collaborating with Aerodelft because they are one of the few involved in the construction of a hydrogen-powered aircraft. “As one of the few, we encounter problems. If it concerns a specific part, we could make a new design with the supplier in a form of collaboration. Student teams are also much freer than a large company. We can more easily test new ideas. They can also learn from that.”
Because even though the students are using a standard Sling 4 aircraft and the fuel cell and other components are not new, it is still difficult to combine the two. “It is our responsibility to make the system as a whole work in the aircraft configuration.” And sometimes you fall from one problem to another. “If we want to store the hydrogen in the back of the manned aircraft, we must have a firewall between the hydrogen and the driver. The problem is that in a fire everything around the firewall melts away. That’s why we now put hydrogen detection sensors in the back. Then you know when hydrogen is leaking and you can land immediately. And then we always come up with another problem that we have to solve.”