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Electricity in the Air: Wang, Bai Pursue Goal of Electrified Flight

Photo above courtesy of Pixabay.

Many aspects of society have made the move to a greener, less carbon-dependent version of their former selves in recent years, transportation being no exception.

While rechargeable vehicles have so far largely been the domain of automobiles, recent developments have helped busses, trains, and even planes increasingly go electric.

A pair of researchers in the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are part of a project aiming to help electronic flight take to the air on a broader scale.

“There are many obstacles to overcome when we talk about wanting to have electrically powered flight,” said Condra Chair of Excellence in Power Electronics Fred Wang. “Our objective is to develop solutions for future electrified propulsion that are reliable, efficient, and low emission, all while being lightweight.”

Wang and Associate Professor Hua Bai are leading the project, with the ultimate goal of producing a new type of circuit breaker specifically tailored to future long-haul double-aisle electrified commercial aircraft.

That project, Ultra-Light Tightly Integrated Modular Aviation-Transportation Enabling Solid-State Circuit Breaker (ULTIMATE-SSCB), was selected by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) for $1.4 million in funding.

Bai noted that their design will use advanced semiconductors that are cooled cryogenically, which is key to their overall success.

“The breaker we are working on will have much lower power losses and a significantly increased capability, while at the same time being much smaller and lighter than the breakers used for ground applications,” said Bai, who, like Wang, also works with the Center for Ultra-Wide-Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT). “This is necessary in order to meet the stringent weight and efficiency requirements for future electrified propulsion systems. With its super-fast response time, the new breaker can help reduce the weight of rest of the system while maintaining high reliability.”

ARPA-E launched two programs in 2020—Aviation-class Synergistically Cooled Electric-motors with iNtegrated Drives (ASCEND) and Range Extenders for Electric Aviation with Low Carbon and High Efficiency (REEACH)—as a way to combat greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft in 2020.

The work that Wang and Bai are doing is part of a newer initiative, Connecting Aviation by Lighter Electric Systems (CABLES), which is seen as a crucial area of support for both ASCEND and REEACH, making the breakthroughs they achieve important for years to come.

The UT project team includes long-time CURENT industry consortium member Boeing, as well as the University of Houston and Clemson University.

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