13 Jun 2013

Space sector likely to use terrestrial fuel cell technology

Fuel cell stack undergoing testing at the JRC.
Fuel cell stack undergoing testing at the JRC.
© EU, 2013

The aerospace sector is likely to tap into the automotive hydrogen fuel cell technology in the years to come, according to an article co-authored by the JRC and the European Space Agency (ESA) in the scientific journal Acta Astronautica. The article examines the current hydrogen activities in the terrestrial and aerospace industries, highlighting potential performance improvements and cost savings.

Fuel cells, devices that transform the chemical energy of hydrogen into electrical energy through their reaction with oxygen and feed the electricity to run an electric engine, were first employed in space missions in the 1960s. Due to their high efficiency and their water vapor emissions (no CO₂), hydrogen fuel cells have triggered global research efforts to reduce greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions. Starting with prototype tests in the 1990s, fuel cells are at the verge of market deployment in the automotive sector, while space has retired its fuel cells in summer 2011, when the last Space Shuttle mission came to a successful end.

Fuel cells could have several applications in the space sector: high power and energy applications (such as a manned spaceflight and exploration missions), future generation high power telecommunication satellites and space infrastructure of great scale. However, the research also indicates that the worldwide R&D investments of the automotive sector outweigh those of the aerospace and defence sector by a factor 5.1 worldwide, and by 4.4 in the EU-27. As space agencies around the world hesitate to develop dedicated fuel cell systems tailored for specific space programmes, they will likely use fuel cell technologies developed for terrestrial use.

According to the article, the analysis also shows that in comparison to battery based systems, fuel cells excel when high energy and power demands become essential, both for satellites with high power requirements or bigger cars that travel longer distances.