Case Study:
Green aviation – Thermal management technology for ammonia fuel propulsion system

Background

Reaction Engines completed a joint Proof of Concept study with the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to determine whether our innovative thermal management technology could be combined with STFC’s world-class catalysts to create a truly green aviation system based on ammonia fuel.

Ammonia fuel propulsion system

About STFC

The STFC is part of UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) and is a world-leading multi-disciplinary science organisation. Its goal is to deliver economic, societal, scientific and international benefits to the UK and its people.

The challenge

Decarbonizing the aviation industry is one of the great challenges of our age. Most modern aircraft are powered by kerosene, a jet-fuel which is a flammable hydrocarbon oil and produces carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides and soot. The emissions generated from this method of propulsion contribute a significant amount to the total global greenhouse gas production.

Current strategies being explored have some potential drawbacks for the aerospace sector. Battery technology does not currently have the power density required to give a standard narrowbody jet (such as the A320 or 737) sufficient range. Hydrogen would need to be used in its deeply cryogenic liquid state, requiring new infrastructures and major changes to aircraft configurations. Synthetic fuels and biofuels require novel processes or arable land for production and leave the issue of soot emissions unsolved. With some governments beginning to tie Covid-19 recovery funding to net-zero targets being met, it is clear that further solutions are needed.

The rocket plume intercooler core

Decarbonising the aviation industry with ammonia-based propulsion systems

Adding value

The propulsion system was devised by Reaction Engines and investigated by a team at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, based at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source Research Facility and STFC’s Technology Department. It would have the potential to efficiently crack the ammonia fuel using heat harvested from the jet engine through Reaction Engines’ groundbreaking heat exchangers to provide a zero-carbon fuel blend of ammonia and hydrogen that burns stably just like jet fuel. The density of liquid ammonia allows for conventional aircraft configurations to be used and it may be possible to retrofit into an existing engine, resulting in a zero-carbon jet that could start serving the short haul market well before the 2050 target currently set by the industry.

The combination of Reaction Engines’ transformative heat exchanger technology and the STFC’s innovative catalysts will enable development of a game-changing class of green ammonia-based aviation propulsion systems. Our study showed that an ammonia-fuelled jet engine could be adapted from currently available engines, and ammonia as a fuel doesn’t require a complete re-think of the design of civil aircraft as we know them today. This means a fast transition to a sustainable aviation future is possible at low cost; ammonia-powered aircraft could be serving the world’s short-haul routes well in advance of 2050.

Contact us on appliedtech@reactionengines.co.uk to find out how we can help you unlock the potential in your business.

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