Aerospace electrification: Accelerating the opportunity
The Aerospace Electrification event with WMG and ATI successfully brought together thought leaders and experts from across the aerospace supply chain and other sectors.
Such events are vital to understand the opportunities and challenges faced by the sector, and a collaborative approach combining industry and academia will help the UK to continue its place at the forefront of transport electrification.
A series of presentations, workshops and Q&A led to a lively critical analysis of the topics at hand for aerospace electrification. These included safety, energy storage, electric drives, power electronics, thermal management, whole-vehicle optimisation and many more.
Alison Meir, Head of Business Development, WMG HVM Catapult, chaired the event, and introduced our first speaker, Mark Scully, Head of Advanced Systems and Propulsion at the ATI, who set the scene. Aerospace electrification has been a topic for some time now and technology is developing apace, with propulsion systems, subsystems and ancillaries all being electrified. Mark highlighted huge opportunities for the sector, with funding from UK Government supporting collaborative R&D in electrification. The ATI welcomes enquiries from industrial, academic and other stakeholders looking for R&D support.
Battery technologies and associated key metrics were presented by David Rawlins, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at WMG. The safety-conscious nature of the aerospace industry has typically led to a modest pace of development in such technologies compared with, say, automotive. David identified that aerospace engineers are trained to design for perfection, but with future architectures and technologies still fledgling, no one knows what the perfect or ‘right’ solution yet is. So, there is opportunity for faster paced R&D. There is a growing evidence base on the limitations of battery technology and the trade-offs of power density against energy density, primarily driven by the automotive sector. As such, it is vital that the sector remains committed to influencing and leading battery technology for aerospace. An example is the ATI ACCEL programme, involving Electroflight and Rolls Royce, in partnership with Yasa, WMG and more. The continual need to engage with and influence the regulatory bodies for safety and certification was a poignant discussion point.
Future hybrid and all-electric aircraft will use radically different architectures to the aircraft of today, enhancing the need for a holistic systems engineering approach to design and integration. Sarabpal Bhatia, E-Fan X R&T Coordination Manager at Airbus, provided insight into the considerations currently underway at Airbus and the wider industry. Sarabpal reinforced that the aerospace and aviation industries have learnt many lessons since the dawn of flight and the jet age and that, as a collaborative sector, we must continue to learn lessons together. The integration challenges discussed included thermal management, high-voltage systems and arcing, human-machine interface, electromagnetic interference and protection. All of which are providing engineers with intricate problems to solve for future architectures.
On the topic of electric machines and more-electric aircraft (MEA), Marc Holme, Senior Director, at Collins Aerospace was able to share insight to delegates. The Boeing 787 currently has significant electrical energy generation capability (>1MVA) with electrification of pneumatic and environmental control systems. Marc identified that there are further electrification opportunities on the current fleet of conventional aircraft with technologies such as:
- Higher performance magnetics.
- Higher voltage systems.
- Improved semiconductor device efficiency.
The primary drivers for these are currently size, weight, power and cost. For future vehicles, electrical machines, power densities, power electronics and integrated drives, increased operating temperatures and systems safety were all topics of discussion. Composite enclosures for electrical machines were introduced, with the lower weight being traded for potentially lower EMI immunity.
These insightful presentations were followed by a series of hands-on workshops chaired by WMG and ATI to identify and address the key challenges and identify ways to overcome them. Following these sessions, delegates fed back and were able to ask questions of our expert panel.
During the Q&A, creation and availability of technology roadmaps was of interest. Roadmaps across electrification technologies have been produced by the ATI with industry and are available on the ATI's website.
Batteries and stored energy created much discussion. The thermal implications of energy storage failure cases were discussed and identified as a key challenge both at pack level and cell level. The design of experiments for a system with hundreds or thousands of battery cells is a complex topic ripe for innovation. Battery degradation over operational lifetime was discussed with the design considerations and in-service detection being key challenges. David Rawlins provided insight into how Lithium-ion cells are still leading for cost and volume primarily driven from the automotive sector.
The operational considerations of all-electric aircraft were also discussed. The flight-level optimisation of an aircraft that does not burn fuel (and lose mass) was challenged with the opportunities still all to play for.
Overall, the event was attended by a wide range of industry and academic contributors, all of whom believed that aerospace electrification holds huge opportunity for the UK. The Government’s net zero agenda, initiatives and R&D funding mean that aerospace electrification will require collaborative innovation for years to come.
The recording of the event and detailed challenge sessions overviews are available here.