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Researchers develop compact fuel tank for liquid Hydrogen-powered flight

WSU researchers have developed a unique hydrogen fuel tank that improves the practicality of hydrogen-powered unmanned, long-distance flight. The researchers have received a grant from the state-funded Joint Center for Aerospace Technology and Innovation to work with Insitu, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Boeing Company with headquarters in Bingen, to use the fuel tank and to develop a hydrogen fuel cell version of the company’s popular ScanEagle unmanned aerial system. Once it is validated, the researchers assert that the technology could be adaptable for rockets, large unmanned aerial vehicles, and even commercial airplanes. The ScanEagle is a reconnaissance drone with applications including search and rescue, fire and wildlife monitoring, and military applications. ScanEagle is currently powered by gasoline engines. A hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric motor would be significantly more efficient than gasoline engines and would reduce noise and emissions. Because it can be generated from water, hydrogen fuel could also be more easily available than gasoline in remote places, such as in the middle of the ocean. The problem with hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles, however, is that the fuel uses a lot of volume, even liquid hydrogen takes up between two to three times more space than gasoline. So, the tiny ScanEagle, which is only five feet long, doesn’t have room for a large fuel tank. “The hydrogen tank volume is often the limiting factor in the retrofit of vehicles originally designed for conventional fuels such as ScanEagle,’’ said Jake Leachman, assistant professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, who, along with Patrick Adam is leading the project. “You typically have to design the entire aircraft around the hydrogen fuel tank.’’ The WSU researchers have developed a hydrogen fuel tank that can store hydrogen at its required super cold temperatures (-431°F) and then warm it up to room temperature without any additional piece of equipment, so their fuel tank can be significantly smaller and lighter weight than those currently available. They have recently filed for a patent on their design and, using 3-D printing, have produced prototypes. Working with Insitu, the researchers hope to improve their prototype and do computer modeling to develop the optimal tank for flying. They will also conduct safety tests with the eventual goal of flight tests in ScanEagle.