From the Mines newsroom: The enormous amount of energy required to operate commercial aircraft makes it one of the most challenging industries to reduce the reliance on energy-rich fossil fuels.  But the future of aircraft power may require it, and a team of researchers at Colorado School of Mines are working on meeting that challenge.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E REEACH (Range Extenders for Electric Aviation with Low Carbon and High Efficiency) program, Mines professors in mechanical and electrical engineering are designing and developing a new generation of hybrid electric power plants for aviation. Collaborating on the project are the University of Maryland and industry partners Raytheon Technologies and Ion Storage Solutions.

“The challenge is designing a system that is lightweight yet mechanically robust enough for aircraft, while supplying the types of energy density of fossil-fueled gas turbine engines,” said Greg Jackson, professor of mechanical engineering. Jackson is the lead investigator on the Mines team, which also includes Robert Braun, Rowlinson professor of mechanical engineering, and Tyrone Vincent, professor of electrical engineering.

The goal of the REEACH program is to develop disruptive systems to “convert the chemical energy contained in energy-dense carbon neutral liquid fuels into electric power for aircraft propulsion via electric powertrains and other key systems.”

Why? According to REEACH, air travel is responsible for a growing portion of U.S. energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. In 2017, air travel in the U.S. consumed nearly 3.5 quadrillion BTUs of jet fuel and was responsible for about 2.6 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. To mitigate the harmful impact of air travel, ultra-high efficient, electrified aircraft propulsion systems are needed.

The Mines team is  prepared to tackle the challenge. A highly efficient and cost-effective hybrid-electric turbogenerator that utilizes novel architectures with solid oxide fuel cells will enable their newly proposed system to simultaneously generate electricity and propulsion power for narrow-body aircraft such as the Boeing 737.

And instead of the jet fuel now being used in gas-turbine engines, the system the team is working on will use liquified natural gas that can be produced from a variety of resources including renewable electricity and carbon sources.