By Michael Trontzos

Inspired by the pioneering spirit of the Wright brothers, whose historic flight in 1903 marked the beginning of aviation, today’s aviation industry faces a critical challenge: addressing carbon emissions.

Responsible for 2% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2022, and escalating faster than rail, road, or shipping, the aviation sector urgently needs innovative solutions to achieve the ambitious goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

One thing is certain: Fuel cells stand out as a key solution to propel us toward greener aviation. In simple terms, fuel cells are devices that generate clean electricity through a chemical reaction, typically involving hydrogen and oxygen.

Envision a future where flights spanning up to 1,000 nautical miles are entirely powered by fuel cells. While low-temperature PEM (LT-PEM) fuel cells represent an established technology with inherent limitations, especially in aviation applications, high-temperature PEM (HT-PEM) fuel cell technology emerges as a more recent innovation that is steadily maturing and becoming increasingly competitive.

Thanks to HT-PEM fuel cell technology, fuel-cell-powered flights are expected to soon become a reality. Here’s why:

  1. Advanced Thermal Management: Unlike conventional low-temperature PEM cells, HT-PEM fuel cell technology operates at higher temperatures, ranging from 120°C to 220°C. This effectively addresses thermal management challenges in aviation, enhancing performance, passenger capacity, and range through superior high-temperature operation.
  2. Water-Free Advantage: HT-PEM’s remarkable characteristic of not requiring water makes it ideal for aviation applications. This key advantage ensures consistent and reliable performance even in the most extreme flight conditions, resolving issues faced by low-temperature PEM cells.
  3. Extended Range and Rapid Refueling: Aircraft powered by HT-PEM fuel cell technology, featuring lightweight thin plates, significantly increase range, payload capacity, and the number of trips on a single charge. The rapid refuelling of HT-PEM aircraft surpasses typical battery recharge times, enabling swift turnarounds without compromising power output.
  4. Fuel Versatility: HT-PEM fuel cells adapt to various hydrogen-containing fuels such as liquid hydrogen, dimethyl ether, and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), broadening the energy choices for the aviation industry. Unlike low-temperature PEM technology, HT-PEM reduces barriers associated with high-purity hydrogen requirements, enhancing its commercial viability.
  5. Durability and Efficiency: Beyond superior performance, HT-PEM fuel cell technology excels in durability, offering a longer operational life than low-temperature PEM fuel cells. Its streamlined cooling system, enabled by higher operational temperatures, enhances efficiency and reliability.

Ever wondered what sets HT-PEM fuel cell technology apart? It’s all about the core component: Membrane Electrode Assemblies (MEAs). MEAs play a crucial role in a fuel cell’s performance, influencing its lifetime, efficiency, weight, and cost. Through Advent’s active participation in the U.S. Department of Energy’s L’Innovator™ program and collaborations with esteemed institutions like Los Alamos National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we’re in the process of commercializing our innovative Ion Pair™ MEA technology. This positions us as leaders in transforming the global fuel cell market. Advent’s Ion Pair™ MEAs have already shown extended operational lifetimes and operate at higher current densities compared to high-temperature PBI-based MEAs, promising a significant reduction in powertrain system weight and volume through streamlined balance of plant and cooling subsystems.

In a strategic collaboration with Airbus, Advent is working to optimize its Ion Pair™ MEA technology, contributing to their goal of powering aircraft entirely by fuel cells. This will be accomplished by employing hydrogen fuel cells to generate electrical energy, which subsequently drives electric motors propelling a propeller or fan. It constitutes a fully electric propulsion system, diverging significantly from the current aircraft propulsion systems in service.

Beyond aviation, we believe in the versatility of HT-PEM for heavy-duty trucks and marine applications. Teaming up with Siemens Energy to decarbonize the maritime sector and partnering with Hyundai Motor Company for heavy-duty transport, Advent is driving change on multiple fronts. By setting new standards for environmental responsibility and technological innovation, HT-PEM fuel cell technology is actively shaping a future where the skies are cleaner, the seas are greener, and our roads echo with the promise of sustainable energy.