The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

On The Radar

Wright Seeks Stakeholder Guidance on Fuel Cell Options for Electric Airliners

Wright Electric’s ambitious plans to modernize the venerable BAe 146 regional jetliner with an electric propulsion system are to be advanced with the assistance of Honeywell Aerospace. This week, the start-up announced the opening of a Joint Technical Assessment Phase (JTAP) for the Wright Spirit program, which is expected to lead to a full launch of the program in October 2022.

The JATP is intended to resolve a host of details about the conversion plan that weren’t defined when Wright announced its concept last week. These include determining the architecture for the reworked 1990s-vintage aircraft, as well as for its new propulsion system. The company and its partners will also evaluate the technical readiness level of critical path components, presumably to assess technology risks and the viability of bringing a 100-seat electric airliner to market by 2026.

The Honeywell team will focus on the conversion plan’s envisaged turbogenerator and fuel cells, while also providing Wright with access to test facilities, aircraft, and extensive infrastructure at the disposal of this major aerospace group. Battery and energy storage specialist Eagle Picher will participate in the JATP work.

Assuming the JATP exercise leads to a full program launch, plans call for flight testing of a prototype with one of its four turbofan engines replaced with an electric motor in 2023. By 2026, the propulsion system would be fully electric.

Meanwhile, Wright is seeking wider input from the industry and prospective stakeholders on whether its fuel cells should be based on a hydrogen or aluminum energy source. In a detailed 18-page discussion paper, the U.S. company’s technical team spells out the pros and cons of both approaches.

Hydrogen fuel cells are determined to deliver longer range but at the expense of a smaller payload for the aircraft, more operational complexity, and higher costs. Conversely, argue the paper’s authors, aluminum fuel cells result in less range but also increased payloads, easier operations, and lower costs.

The paper provides a useful breakdown of the chemistry and physics behind both options, as well as summaries of previous applications and considerations such as the supply of both materials. It includes a feedback form, inviting comments on issues related to certification, logistics, costs, environmental impact, and how attractive each option would be to airlines.

Wright also intends to develop an all-electric, 186-seat narrowbody airliner for service entry around 2030. Low-cost carriers EasyJet and Viva Aerobus have expressed support for these plans.