Airbus now aims to use superconductivity to decarbonize its aircraft

It is working with CERN to push the boundaries of clean aerospace.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Airbus and CERN are collaborating on superconductivity.
Airbus and CERN are collaborating on superconductivity.

Airbus 

Airbus and CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, have joined forces to launch Airbus UpNext, a project whose aim is to evaluate how superconductivity can contribute to the decarbonization of future aircraft systems, according to a press release by the aircraft manufacturer published last week.

It consists of a Super-Conductor for Aviation with Low Emissions (SCALE) demonstrator that aims to promote the adaptation and adoption of superconducting technologies in airborne electrical distribution systems.

“In its research, CERN pushes the limits of science and engineering, and partners with industry to enable innovation, with positive environmental impact,” said Raphael Bello, CERN’s Director of Finance and Human Resources. 

“Our technologies have the potential to be adapted to the needs of future clean transportation and mobility solutions, as demonstrated by this agreement with Airbus. This partnership is only a first step in our journey with the European leader in aviation, and shows how much we value the excellence of our Member States’ industry.”

Exploring the full potential of future aircraft technologies

“Our role at Airbus UpNext is to explore the full potential of technologies applied for future aircraft and to partner with the world leaders to prepare for this future. Partnering with a leading research institute such as CERN, which brought the world some of the most important findings in fundamental physics, will help push the boundaries of research in clean aerospace as we work to make sustainable aviation a reality”, said Sandra Bour-Schaeffer, CEO Airbus UpNext.  

“We are already developing a superconductivity demonstrator called ASCEND (Advanced superconducting and Cryogenic Experimental powertraiN Demonstrator) to study the feasibility of this technology for electric and hybrid aircraft. Combining knowledge obtained from our demonstrator and CERN’s unique capabilities in the field of superconductors makes for a natural partnership.” 

Bringing together CERN’s experience in superconducting technologies with Airbus UpNext’s capabilities in innovative aircraft design and manufacturing, the SCALE demonstrator’s first results are expected at the end of 2023. The hope of this experiment is that it will pave the way to superconducting power distribution for aircraft. 

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An optimized generic superconductor cryogenic powertrain

If successful the initiative will produce an optimized generic superconductor cryogenic (~500kW) powertrain by end of 2025 that consists of a DC link (cable and cryostat) with two current leads. It will also boast a cooling system that is based on gaseous helium.

Last week we reported that Airbus was developing a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine as one of the potential solutions to equip its zero-emission aircraft that will enter service by 2035. 

Airbus has ambitious plans to soon start ground and flight testing this fuel cell engine architecture onboard its ZEROe demonstrator aircraft. The firm also revealed that the A380 MSN1 flight test aircraft was currently being altered to give it the capacity to carry liquid hydrogen tanks and their distribution systems. 

What role superconductivity will play in the development of this engine still remains to be clarified but there is no doubt that Airbus is on the way to developing some cutting-edge sustainability-related technology.