Illinois Tech wins grant for electric aviation technology
This NASA concept, called the N3-X, uses a number of superconducting electric motors to drive the distributed fans to lower the fuel burn, emissions, and noise.
NASA

Illinois Tech wins grant for electric aviation technology

U.S. Department of Energy funding to create momentary circuit interrupter that can keep turboelectric aircraft flying safely.

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The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded Illinois Institute of Technology (Illinois Tech), a private, technology-focused research university in Chicago, a grant to develop critical technologies to help usher in a new era in electric aviation.

The $779,374 grant was awarded to Illinois Tech's Grainger Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering John Shen to create the first-ever momentary circuit interrupter that can be used in turboelectric aircraft to help keep planes flying safely with megawatts of power coming out of their engines.

Shen said, “Turboelectric aircraft, being propelled by many electric fans distributed across the body of the aircraft instead of just at the wings, represents a fundamental and exciting shift in air travel as we know it, with the potential to reduce air travel emissions by up to 90% – and this technology will be a critical step to make that a reality.”

Within the next 20 years, each turboelectric plane will be powered by around 50MW of electricity, enough to power a small city. Ensuring these planes continue to function safely while in the air will require a completely new kind of circuit protection technology.

Illinois Tech received this competitive award alongside General Electric (GE) Research, Virginia Tech, University of Tennessee, Advanced Conductor Technologies, and Hyper Tech Research as a part of ARPA-E’s Topics Informing New Program Areas - Connecting Aviation By Lighter Electric Systems (CABLES) initiative, for the development of technologies for medium-voltage power instruments, such as distribution cables, connectors, and circuit breakers for electric aviation applications.

The Illinois Tech proprietary superconducting momentary circuit interrupters (SMCI) aim to provide fault protection with ultralow power loss (less than one watt), ultrafast response (less than a ten millionth of a second), and high power density for future turboelectric aircraft power systems. SMCI is not a circuit breaker but can perform fault interruption and isolation functions working in concert with the mechanical switch.

“With that much electricity flowing through turboelectric aircraft, it’s crucial to avoid the conduction loss of solid-state circuit breakers that causes excessive heat, and it is vital that we improve on the response time of hybrid circuit breakers to prevent potential damage from the electrical fault,” Shen said. “Using high-temperature superconducting materials for fault protection in this way is a really exciting technological advancement beyond conventional circuit breakers.”