The $10 million five-year NASA University Leadership Initiative grant means faculty and students will work with industry and other universities to help revolutionize the aviation industry.

UCF to Lead $10M NASA Project to Develop Zero-Carbon Jet Engines

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

UCF is developing new technology that is expected to make airplane engines emission-free, potentially revolutionizing the aviation industry.

UCF put together a team of experts and stakeholders to evaluate their innovation, which aims to not only make aviation fuel green but also create engines and fueling systems that easily integrate into current airport infrastructure thus saving airports and aircraft manufacturers millions of dollars as they look to retrofit.

“We don’t want to create something that will be too cumbersome and expensive to implement,” says lead investigator and UCF Engineering Professor Jay Kapat. “If we want people to adopt this green tech, it needs to be scalable. To adopt hydrogen, for example, we can’t expect every airport to set up large cryogenic liquid hydrogen systems like Kennedy Space Center. That’s unreasonable.”

With this practical approach, Kapat put together a team of experts from UCF, Georgia Tech, and Purdue and with industry experts from Boeing, General Electric, ANSYS, Southwest Research Institute, and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. The team landed a $10 million five-year NASA University Leadership Initiative grant to get the ball rolling.

“We have a good concept,” Kapat says. “And by having our partners in industry we know we’ll fine-tune and be ready for technology transition, so we can provide a greener future for our children.”

The Tech

Kapat and several of his UCF colleagues in engineering and the Florida Space Institute propose using liquid ammonia (NH3) as the fuel for aircraft which, upon combustion, will produce harmless emissions that are green while still providing enough power to keep the aircraft aloft. At high altitudes, ammonia is naturally liquid thereby limiting the need for special handling. Airports and airplanes are expected to store the ammonia in fuel tanks. Ammonia is commonly used as a fertilizer and, when mixed with water, in some household cleaners.

Ammonia will be the hydrogen carrier, which will be catalytically “cracked” to release nitrogen and hydrogen. The hydrogen will be burned in the onboard combustors (inside the engine) to provide power. Airports and aircraft are expected to store the NH3 in fuel tanks. Excess NH3 will then be used to catalytically reduce any NOx left in the exhaust converting it to nitrogen and water.

When the hydrogen is released, there will be an added bonus, Kapat explained. The conversion process also provides cooling, which can be used to keep engines from overheating and burning out. The impact may be better engine performance and efficiency. Engine exhaust heat is then converted back to electricity for onboard use, thus reducing power draw from the core engines.

The team also is developing new components for jet engines to be used in conjunction with the new fuel. The team is using the 737-8 class for a baseline as it represents nearly a quarter of all commercial aircraft, according to Boeing.

The Team

“This project would not have been possible without our internal and external partners,” Kapat says.

Jay Kapat

Catalyst development and improvement of known catalysis pathways are key to the UCF effort and will be undertaken in Professor Richard Blair’s laboratory at the Florida Space Institute. Engineering Professor Subith Vasu will lead the efforts to design tools, computer models, and combustion testing from his lab. Professor Kapat will lead a team that will conduct thermal management and system integration at UCF’s Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research (CATER), which he leads. UCF Chemical Safety and Security Coordinator Sandra Hick will oversee safety and occupational health issues that are central to any use of ammonia and hydrogen.

Georgia Tech will provide its aviation simulation expertise and Purdue is providing some of its unique labs and expertise in combustion and aerodynamics. Boeing is providing the integration know-how to the aircraft, and GE is contributing its knowledge of the jet engines. Other industry partners are advising on large-scale simulation, the feasibility of the technology in the real world, and providing a pathway for technology transition. Student training and workforce development are also key aspects of the overall project. Several UCF students working under faculty in the various labs will contribute to the research.

Richard Blair

The UCF team includes:

  • Vasu, an expert in spectroscopy, propulsion combustion and optical diagnostics
  • Blair, an expert in energy efficient catalytic processing of bio-derived compounds for fuels and chemical feedstock
  • Hick, chemical safety and security coordinator for UCF Environmental Health and Safety.
  • Hans-Jürgen Kiesow, a courtesy professor in CATER at UCF. A retired Siemens vice president who over saw gas turbines design and development, and management of complex global teams.
  • Erik Fernandez, a research assistant professor in Engineering
  • Ladislav Vesely and Marcel Otto, post-doctoral scholars funded in part by UCF’s Preeminent Scholar’s program

Other collaborators are:

  • Terrence Meyer, Guillermo Paniagua form Purdue University
  • Dimitri Marvis and Jonathan Gladin from Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Greg Natsui’10 ’12 MS ’15PhD and Keith McManus from GE
  • Michael Stoia, Kevin Jui and Nickolas Applegate from Boeing
  • Swati Saxena from ANSYS
  • Joshua Schmitt ‘15MS, Tim Allison and Grant Musgrove from the Southwest Research Institute
  • Kevin Thompson from the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

Kapat is a recognized expert in energy research.  He leads CATER, which has brought together experts who are solving some of the most complex research problems in turbomachinery for power generation, aviation, and space propulsion. Kapat has multiple degrees including a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Associate fellow. He joined UCF in 1997 and has published more than 350 articles, many of which are highly cited by researchers around the world.

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