Ultra-efficient electric powertrain for aircraft could reduce energy costs

Image: Photo courtesy of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy

Texas A&M Engineering researchers have been awarded $1.3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). With the award, researchers will focus on the design, fabrication and testing of a lightweight and ultra-efficient electric powertrain for aircraft propulsion to reduce the energy costs and emissions of aviation.  

The Texas A&M team is led by principal investigator Hamid Toliyat, Raytheon Professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and head of the Advanced Electric Machines and Power Electronics Lab, and recent Texas A&M graduate Matthew Gardner ’19, who is an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Their multidisciplinary team includes Prasad Enjeti, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Dion Antao, Jonathan Felts,  Jaime Grunlan and Bryan Rasmussen from the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering; Moble Benedict from the Department of Aerospace Engineering; and Patrick Shamberger from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

The team’s technology will reach unprecedented peak power density and efficiency via an axial flux motor with lightweight carbon fiber reinforced structural material,  a GaN multilevel inverter, a thermally conductive nanocomposite electrical insulation and a two-phase thermal management system with zeolite thermal energy storage to absorb the excess heat generated during takeoff. Each subsystem is designed for tight integration with the other subsystems to minimize weight.

“The wealth of technical expertise at Texas A&M allowed us to form a multidisciplinary team that can approach this problem from every angle to achieve a profound advance in electric powertrains, and help enable electric and hybrid-electric aircraft. This project will also give Texas A&M students invaluable experience solving challenging real-world problems with a multidisciplinary team,” said Toliyat.

Texas A&M received this competitive award from ARPA-E’s Aviation-class Synergistically Cooled Electric-motors with integrated Drives (ASCEND) program, which works to develop innovative lightweight and ultra-efficient electric motors, drives and associated thermal management systems (collectively referred to as the all-electric powertrain) that will help enable net-zero carbon emissions in single-aisle, 150-200 passenger commercial aircraft.

“Millions of Americans travel on single-aisle aircraft every year, contributing to continued increases in energy use and emissions by commercial airlines,” said ARPA-E Director Lane Genatowski in the ARPA-E release announcing the awards. “REEACH and ASCEND teams will work to lower these burdens by creating innovative new systems to enable more cost-effective and efficient flight systems for commercial travel.”

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