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A fuel cell system sizing tool based on current production aircraft

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conference contribution
posted on 30.11.2017, 09:58 by Alex Thirkell, Rui ChenRui Chen, Ian Harrington
Electrification of aircraft is on track to be a future key design principal due to the increasing pressure on the aviation industry to significantly reduce harmful emissions by 2050 and the increased use of electrical equipment. This has led to an increased focus on the research and development of alternative power sources for aircraft, including fuel cells. These alternative power sources could either be used to provide propulsive power or as an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). Previous studies have considered isolated design cases where a fuel cell system was tailored for their specific application. To accommodate for the large variation between aircraft, this study covers the design of an empirical model, which will be used to size a fuel cell system for any given aircraft based on basic design parameters. The model was constructed utilising aircraft categorisation, fuel cell sizing and balance of plant sub-models. Fifteen aircraft categories were defined based on the primary function and propulsion method of the aircraft. For each category, propulsive power and electrical generation requirements were calculated. Based on the results from categorisation and the flight envelope of the aircraft, fuel cell and balance of plant systems are defined. The total system mass and volume are given as outputs, along with polarisation and power curves for the fuel cell. This study finds that the model can accurately predict the electrical generation capability and propulsive requirements across the defined aircraft categories. In addition, the model can appropriately define key, high-level fuel cell parameters based on current Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) technology. Total fuel cell system mass and volume are calculated and shown to be reasonable for small aircraft. For larger aircraft with a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) greater than 50,000kg, current PEM technology is not able to match the gravimetric power density of existing APUs.


Funding from EPSRC CDT in Fuel Cells and their Fuels: EP/L015749/1.



  • Aeronautical, Automotive, Chemical and Materials Engineering


  • Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering

Published in

AeroTech Congress & Exhibition SAE Technical Papers


Part F129883




THIRKELL, A., CHEN, R. and HARRINGTON, I., 2017. A fuel cell system sizing tool based on current production aircraft. SAE Technical Paper, 2017-01-2135, 2017, doi:10.4271/2017-01-2135.


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AM (Accepted Manuscript)

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at:

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This paper was published in the SAE Technical Paper Series and the definitive published version is available at This conference paper was presented at the AeroTech Congress & Exhibition, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 26th-28th September 2017.



Book series

SAE Technical Paper;2017-01-2135




Fort Worth, Texas, USA

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