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Solid hydrogen-on-demand fuel cell flies UAV for record six hours

17 February 2016

A new lightweight, energy-dense hydrogen-on-demand fuel cell developed in Singapore powers UAV to record flight endurance.

HES Energy Systems' Solid Hydrogen Fuel Cell designed for Skyblade 360 UAV by ST Aerospace (photo: Business Wire)

A consortium of Singaporean institutions and private sector companies including HES Energy Systems, ST Aerospace, DSO National Laboratories, and the Future Systems and Technology Directorate of Singapore’s Ministry of Defence, have worked jointly to achieve a record six hour endurance, 300km flight on the Skyblade 360 UAV built in Singapore by ST Aerospace.

Besides achieving a significant technical and performance milestone for hydrogen-on-demand enabled fuel cells, it is also the first time in the world that a fuel cell moves beyond the prototype stage and enters the standard products list of a UAV manufacturer. The Skyblade 360 UAV and its fuel cell system are currently on display on ST Engineering’s stand at the 2016 Singapore Air Show.

The Skyblade 360 fuel cell system developed by HES and DSO is lightweight in comparison to lithium batteries that typically power this aircraft, and it is also compact: its one-litre fuel cartridge holds some 1,000Wh of usable energy. Unlike a typical hydrogen fuel cell, the system doesn’t store its fuel as pressurised hydrogen gas, but stores it as a solid chemical material - making it easy for end-users to handle in the field.

Since its founding in 2009 in Singapore, HES has been developing advanced fuel cell systems and continues to help many of the world’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufacturers apply its technologies to improve the flight endurance of their electric powered aircraft. In recent years, HES has proved that its system can store 7 percent of its weight as hydrogen and a fuel utilisation rate of close to 90 percent.

Several material options exist for hydrogen on demand; however, most cannot meet performance targets due to the nature of their reactions and how much energy or reactants are needed to extract hydrogen, which then delivers net usable energy through a fuel cell.

During its research, HES looked at various technologies, including the use of costly sodium borohydride. The system designs based on sodium borohydride were complex, fragile, and came with many challenges for end-users.

In 2013 HES pushed forward with a new material and a highly simplified system. The patented hydrogen-on-demand technology now targets operational costs of just $10 per flight hour, making it a real option for UAV manufacturers.

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