Honeywell Aerospace and NREL Partner To Scale Novel Hydrogen Fuel Storage Solution for Drones

Sept. 15, 2023 | By Natasha Headland | Contact media relations

A flying drone.
One of Honeywell’s electric drones in flight. Photo from Honeywell Aerospace

Electric uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) are versatile for industrial applications but face performance challenges. A new collaboration is scaling an efficient and long-lasting hydrogen storage solution for UAVs.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) embarked on a year-long collaboration with Honeywell Aerospace in 2023 to prototype and support the commercialization of a novel cartridge-based hydrogen fuel storage solution for UAVs. The project, Fuel Additives for Solid Hydrogen (FLASH) Carriers in Electric Aviation, is a new hydrogen carrier technology developed at NREL within the HyMARC Energy Materials Network and is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office through DOE's Technology Commercialization Fund.

Improving UAVs With Hydrogen Solutions

Electric UAVs are seeing incredible growth in industrial applications, such as surveying, maintenance, and security. Many of these applications previously required ground-based vehicles or inefficient use of piloted helicopters. For short-range applications, drones offer greater efficiency, reliability, and precision than conventional combustion-driven aircraft. For long-range and heavy payload applications, however, battery-powered electric UAVs today fall short. The NREL-Honeywell Aerospace collaboration seeks to prove that hydrogen can help address these challenges.

Today's long-range drones are typically powered by combustion engines. While they provide the required range that battery-powered electric UAVs lack, these engines have issues with excessive noise, vibration, and emissions, including carbon emissions.

FLASH seeks to deliver an alternative approach, in which efficient and long-lasting hydrogen storage is coupled to a fuel cell that continuously converts hydrogen to electricity to power electric UAV flight. That system would enable long-range flights, but without the carbon emissions of combustion engines. It would also enable sensitive drone applications like atmospheric monitoring, where exhaust gases and rumbling engines would reduce performance.

FLASH is based on a solid material that can rapidly release hydrogen gas as a fuel. The material has a high hydrogen capacity and can operate at low temperatures (approximately 100°C). "This class of materials is remarkably tunable and therefore highly versatile to industrial hydrogen delivery requirements," said Noemi Leick, NREL's principal investigator on the project.

Compared to past proposals for using hydrogen in drones, FLASH represents a significant breakthrough. Storing hydrogen in bulky, compressed gas tanks is an obstacle to engineering compact drones. The FLASH hydrogen storage technology and fuel cell could be bundled in a single, swappable cartridge that looks just like the batteries UAV owners are used to but offers dramatically longer flight times. Honeywell Aerospace has already developed solid-state cartridge fuel systems for drones and is looking to improve their performance with the unique low-temperature, fast-release technology of FLASH.

"This is an exciting opportunity to demonstrate the performance of hydrogen storage materials that we developed in our laboratory to fuel a real-life flying vehicle," said Katherine Hurst, NREL senior scientist and group manager.

Currently, FLASH operates as a one-way fuel that, once spent, needs to be recycled or refilled. A project in NREL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program is currently examining methods to recycle the fuel using electrochemical processes that could ultimately be powered with renewables.

Potential Market Impacts of FLASH

If the NREL-Honeywell project is successful, FLASH will be qualified for future technological development in optimization, scaling, and cost reduction. This work supports decarbonization of the aviation sector and the creation of high-tech jobs in the United States. Some of the potential large-use cases for hydrogen-fueled UAVs include inspections of electric power lines, gas pipelines, solar panel farms, wind turbines, and other applications where flying on long missions, beyond the line of sight of the operator, would save money and improve reliability, lowering the cost of renewable energy applications.

A researcher working in a lab with lab equipment.
An NREL researcher, Lucy Metzroth, works on an electrochemical setup in the nanoscience lab at the Solar Energy Research Facility. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

"This partnership with NREL is the latest example of how Honeywell is driving the future of sustainable aviation," said Dave Shilliday, vice president and general manager for Urban Air Mobility and Uncrewed Aerial Systems at Honeywell Aerospace. "Hydrogen can offer significant advantages for eVTOL systems in terms of endurance and range. Additionally, using hydrogen as a power source can also significantly expand the possibilities of UAVs beyond the limitations posed by battery-electric powertrains. Honeywell will work with NREL to develop the necessary hydrogen related technology to contribute to the further growth of the industry."

Honeywell Aerospace will provide the technological expertise, platform materials testing for fuel cartridge technology, supply chain logistics insight, prototyping, and fuel cell evaluation to qualify FLASH for further development. In Phase I of the project, NREL will provide technical expertise on FLASH formulations, fabrication, and characterization of the hydrogen fuel storage.

Taken together, the collaborative research will determine the most promising FLASH formulations, develop a prototype FLASH fuel cartridge for Honeywell application platforms, and conduct a fuel cell test with the FLASH cartridge.

"This is a dream project for a national lab researcher," said Steve Christensen, one of the NREL leads on the project proposal. "Honeywell Aerospace has already built and tested devices that can use our materials, giving us the chance to drop our technology directly into their systems and move this promising drone fuel toward commercialization through collaborative R&D. We and our partners at DOE are very excited at this opportunity to see DOE's support of hydrogen technologies result in a market application."

A non-provisional patent application on FLASH was filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Through the support of this TCF award, Honeywell Aerospace will have the foundation to continue the development of FLASH toward commercial deployment.

Learn more about NREL's hydrogen and fuel cell and sustainable transportation and mobility research, including its specific focus on sustainable aviation. And sign up for NREL's quarterly transportation and mobility research newsletter, Sustainable Mobility Matters, to stay current on the latest news.

Tags: Hydrogen,Sustainable Aviation,Transportation