The research team at the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research, who is investigating the possibility of using rechargable batteries in aircrafts, poses for photo in their lab. From left to right: Lorenzo Zappata, Mike Ramunno, Ye Cheng, Aaronn Sergent, Matilde D’Arpino, Marcello Canova, Prashanth Ramesh. Credit: Courtesy of Colleen Herr

Ohio State researchers have their heads in the clouds but their feet on the ground as they look into using sustainable aircraft batteries. 

Through a NASA partnership with four other universities, a team of researchers at Ohio State’s Center for Automotive Research are evaluating the feasibility of using lithium-ion batteries — a common type of rechargeable battery — as energy storage for hybrid-electric commercial aircrafts. 

The new technology will reduce the effect of air travel on the environment by minimizing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, Marcello Canova, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said.

So far, the team has shown that by including batteries and optimizing the design of the electric propulsion systems, they can save 16-20 percent of fuel for a 600-mile flight. The research has shown that carbon dioxide emissions will see an improvement of a comparable percentage, Canova said.

“There is a significant interest from aircraft companies to electrify aviation, principally because A: the increasing costs of fuel and B: the impact on the environment of air travel,” Canova said.

Ohio State joined the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Maryland, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and North Carolina State University and NASA. NASA provides funding and collaboration, Canova said.

“The project has a committee of NASA partners that are looking to our research, learning with us, we are learning from them and it is a beautiful part of the project,” Matilde D’Arpino, a senior research associate at CAR, said. 

The batteries offer many benefits for fuel savings and carbon dioxide emissions, but Canova said the task doesn’t come without challenge or concern.

“There is the main concern that the industry has when putting batteries on an aircraft: Safety.  So if one cell fails it can compromise the safety of the entire airplane,” Canova said.

Canova said some of the fundamental aspects the team has to consider for the batteries are cost, safety, weight and durability.

“The team is focusing on developing a prototype of a battery pack and its own control that can prevent any type of catastrophic failure that could result from one of the cells failing,” Canova said. “The ultimate goal is to develop a prototype of a battery that incorporates these safety features.”

The research team is currently entering its third year of a five-year project and creating computer models to understand the requirements for batteries in order to safely achieve the benefits of reducing carbon dioxide and fuel consumption, Canova said.

“What we are trying to do is to conduct research to break these barriers and understand what are the characteristics batteries need to have if we want them to be safely installed on aircraft and if we want them to achieve further improvement in the energy efficiency,” Canova said.

At the end of the five-year project, the team plans to demonstrate the technologies it is developing at a NASA facility, Canova said.

Despite the challenges, D’Arpino said the real-life applications of the technology and collaboration with NASA have been a special experience for the team.

“We are not doing just the research in a lab,” D’Arpino said. “We are actually applying this, looking to solve real-world problems in collaboration with NASA partners who are giving us guidance on what to look at, what is more important for them in such a way that will help our research to be more applicable to the future.”