NASA, Boeing, UCF to study zero-carbon ammonia jet fuel

By Julian Atchison on February 02, 2022

The Boeing 737-8 aircraft will be the baseline for the new ammonia-fueled jet engine design. Source: Boeing.
Click to learn more. The Boeing 737-8 aircraft will be the baseline for the new ammonia-fueled jet engine design. Source: Boeing.

A $10 million, five-year NASA University Leadership Initiative grant will allow an academic-industry team to develop new ammonia-fed jet engines. Researchers at the University of Central Florida will lead a team including collaborators from Georgia Tech, Purdue University, GE and Boeing. In an interview with United Press International, lead researcher Professor Jay Kapat hopes that – post the initial five-year grant from NASA – another grant of similar length could be secured to launch & complete a pilot program, with commercial uptake of ammonia as an aviation fuel occurring between 2040 and 2050.

Kapat and several of his UCF colleagues in engineering and the Florida Space Institute propose using liquid ammonia (NH3) as the fuel for aircraft which, upon combustion, will produce harmless emissions that are green while still providing enough power to keep the aircraft aloft. At high altitudes ammonia is naturally liquid thereby limiting the need for special handling…

Ammonia will be the hydrogen carrier, which will be catalytically “cracked” to release nitrogen and hydrogen. The hydrogen will be burned in the onboard combustors (inside the engine) to provide the power…Excess NH3 will then be used to catalytically reduce any NOx left in the exhaust converting it to nitrogen and water.

The team is using the 737-8 class for a baseline as it represents nearly a quarter of all commercial aircraft, according to Boeing.

Technology concept from the UCF team in UCF to Lead $10M NASA Project to Develop Zero-Carbon Jet Engines (Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala), 27 Jan 2022

Ammonia in jet engines

This concept is a familiar one to Ammonia Energy readers. At COP26 last year, a group led by Reaction Engines launched a design for a lightweight, modular cracking unit which uses engine exhaust heat to partially crack ammonia into a mixture that mimics jet fuel – perfect for aviation applications (amongst others). In 2020 Reaction Engines completed a design concept for ammonia-fueled jet engines, inspired in part by NASA’s ammonia-fueled, X-15 aircraft research program in the 1950s (which set unofficial records for flight speed & altitude!). Although there has been a hiatus since the X-15, NASA’s vision for “climate-friendly” aviation was launched in June 2021, with electrification, efficiency improvements and alternative jet fuels like ammonia front-of-mind for the organisation.