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Interview with Roland Gerhards, ZAL TechCenter

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“Optimizing the integration and operation of several subsystems to make the use of hydrogen viable on aircraft level, is the key challenge for us.”


Roland Gerhard, ZAL TechCenter

Roland Gerhards, Managing Director at the ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research.


2022 could be the year of recovery in the aviation sector, but there are also many other challenges ahead, such as achieving net-zero carbon emissions. This requires the implementation of new kinds of technologies. How ZAL is driving the innovation in meeting climate change targets in aviation?

ZAL supports a lot of activities for greener aviation in several ways. First, we are offering a platform for collaboration, exchange, and networking. Many partners in the ZAL TechCenter are working together along the process chain of innovation: from universities, start-ups, research institutes (DLR, Fraunhofer) and suppliers to OEMs (Airbus and Lufthansa Technik). Second, ZAL provides research infrastructures which can be used by these partners: hydrogen test environments, acoustics labs, laser installations, just to name a few. Third, our experts are building demonstrators and proof of concepts-prototypes to speed up the innovation process itself. All in all, we offer the perfect environment for innovations in aviation – many of which contribute to sustainability.


ZAL plays a key role in hydrogen research focused on aviation decarbonization. What are the ongoing projects the center is involved in? Is now Hamburg leading the current transformation of aviation into a climate-neutral mobility solution based on hydrogen?

ZAL is involved in several projects for using hydrogen in aviation and well-integrated in the Hamburg hydrogen ecosystem. Our main focus is on the integration on system level and thermal management. Optimizing the integration and operation of several subsystems (e.g. fuel cells, hydrogen tanks) to make the use of hydrogen viable on aircraft level, is the key challenge for us. One example is reducing the weight of fuel cells with the design of 3D-printed endplates and function integration. Thermal management is critical as well: using liquid hydrogen (the main aviation solution for storing hydrogen on bord of aircraft) at minus 253° Celsius and a fuel cell which “only” provides heat at around 80° Celsius necessitates new solutions for the heat transfer between all subsystems for cooling and heating purposes. Integrated test benches are used to operate systems under different conditions.

On smaller scale we are designing drones with hydrogen energy supply: instead of 20 minutes flight time with batteries we are reaching more than 2 ½ hours using fuel cells. Our goal is a flight time of more than 12 hours using a special designed tank for liquid hydrogen.


Urban Air Mobility is also growing faster. Are our cities getting ready for hosting a long-term market for air taxis and drone services? What are ZAL’s latest air mobility trends?

A couple of years ago ZAL launched a network project called Windrove to improve the collaboration between the different stakeholders including the public. One outcome was the acceptance for drones services mainly for flights with a public benefit but not for individual use cases. The MediFly project was launched with this in mind: transporting tissue samples between hospitals and test centers to reduce the time for cancer surgeries. Still, the day-to-day operation above a city and in a complex airspace is a challenge the project team works on. Air taxis will remain a niche product for the near future as the certification is a huge task and the transport performance (people per hour transported) is rather limited. But there are use cases possible as well like emergency services. Noise also remains an issue which is improved with using electric motors but not easily solved.


The ZAL TechCenter was officially opened in Hamburg in March 2016. If you look back after almost 6 years, what are the main achievements?

The main achievement is the trust and collaboration between the different partners: our new way of working. An active network management was needed but it is showing results: the ZAL TechCenter was fully booked after 2 years and remains fully booked even during the Covid-crisis. Now, we are even extending the building with ZAL II and ZAL III. Technically, we managed dozens of projects (including our partners probably even hundreds). Highlights were definitely our start-ups JetLite and Synergeticon winning several prices. Printed electrics (Airbus, Altran) and Sharkskin (Airbus, Lufthansa Technik, Fraunhofer) were other price-winning projects.


From your point of view, what are the short-term challenges of the aviation sector? Is the industry ready to face them?

The Covid-19 crisis has hit the aviation sector – everybody involved from airlines, airports to manufacturers and suppliers – at an unprecedented level. Now, at the beginning of the recovery, the Ukrainian war adds another level of challenges. But there are always opportunities: while the wide-body/long-range market will need more time to recover, the single aisle fleet will be faster back to normal (whatever the new normal will be: Lufthansa for example anticipates 10% less business travelers because of videoconferencing) with new products like the A321XLR. For our research activities we anticipate an even stronger push because of the need of green technologies for now two reasons: climate change and independency of oil and gas. And we are well prepared for this with excellent, well-educated teams and complex infrastructure. Not all technological answers are there yet, but with this set-up the industry is well prepared for this step-change.




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