NCC creates new concept design tool for composite hydrogen cryogenic tanks

25 April 2023

The National Composites Centre (NCC) has today announced the creation of a unique concept design tool that optimises hydrogen cryogenic tank designs according to a customer’s specific requirements. Developed over 12 months by National Composite Centre engineers, the tool works around key parameters such as hydrogen mass, boil off rate and dormancy – the amount of time from the refuelling of a tank to the need to vent a gas pressure build-up, if the aircraft was stationary overnight.  

The new design tool enables the NCC to quickly and easily deliver the most efficient tank design for the given set of parameters.  It will help manufacturers identify the right designs to take forward to the detailed design phase, thereby lowering the barrier to entry for businesses wanting to build their capabilities in composites for the new hydrogen economy. 

The NCC team has successfully trialled the new concept design tool as part of the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) FlyZero programme which aimed to realise zero carbon emission commercial aviation by 2030. The team used the tool to develop three cryogenic tank design options for Regional, Narrowbody and Mid-size aircraft, evaluating thermal, static, shape and volume needs. All the concepts demonstrated significant weight savings for both the inner skin and outer skin of the tanks when compared to a metallic baseline.  

Alex Hickson, Head of Technology – Structures, Manufacturing & Materials from the Aerospace Technology Institute said “Design Tools are essential for the progression of cryogenic hydrogen storage tanks as part of the future fuel systems of zero emission aircraft for medium to long range flights. The development of these capabilities that can be accessed by all those seeking to mature designs and systems for a sustainable aviation sector marks a valuable step forward for the UK. The NCC and broader HVM Catapult form part of the growing UK Network establishing Hydrogen Capabilities for the benefit of the environment whilst creating opportunities for the UK supply chain in this future low carbon economy on the path to target net zero by 2050.” 

While hydrogen has great potential to lower the carbon footprint of commercial aviation, significant engineering challenges exist. Chief amongst these is the issue of fuel storage where hydrogen has lower volumetric density than conventional aviation fuels, so must be kept at -253°C, in liquid form, and not take up too much space within the aircraft. Tanks must be capable of resisting pressure and flight loads but with minimal mass penalty, and configured to fit the limited, sometimes awkwardly shaped interior volumes available. Composites can offer a competitive solution in the future - a work programme the NCC is progressing with partners to mature the technology. 

The Concept Design Tool forms part of the National Composites Centre’s Hydrogen work programme building on two years of R&D and a singular vision to boost supply chain capabilities for composite hydrogen pressure vessels and cryogenic tanks, in order to anchor manufacturing in the UK.  The next steps in this programme which are underway, with a UK-based composite cryogenic storage tank testing programme that will validate and accelerate design, manufacture and test capabilities, commencing with a linerless carbon fibre tank for storing liquid hydrogen (LH2). The team are also working on materials characterisation, developing a true understanding of the behaviour of composites at cryogenic temperatures.  

Announcing the tool, Marcus Walls-Bruck, Head of Hydrogen Technologies at the NCC said: “The concept design tool we have developed offers significant value and advantage to manufacturers looking to accelerate their composite cryogenic tank capabilities. We have pooled our collective engineering expertise at the NCC to build a design tool that is flexible and rigorous, and ultimately gives confidence to customers to down-select concepts more quickly.” 

Access to the Hydrogen concept design tool is available as part of the NCC’s collaborative innovation programmes with industry and the team is actively looking for partners to come forward to build a robust UK supply chain. Companies interested in joining the NCC Hydrogen programme and trialling the tool can contact [email protected] to express interest. 


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