The airline industry is constantly on the lookout for new technologies. The airline industry is constantly on the lookout for new technologies. The airline industry is constantly on the lookout for new technologies. (Photo: IM_photo / Shutterstock)

Could airplanes one day be fueled by ... you?

This technique for producing hydrogen onboard could be a huge energy-saver for air travel.

A clever way to produce hydrogen in-flight could be a game-changer for clean aircraft energy. And it all starts with something we all do every day but – let's face it – don't really like to talk about.

Well, let's talk about it. Drain your lizard, hang a you-ee, take a leak, have a squirt, drain the main vein. (Ironically, for something no one likes to talk about it, there sure are a lot of words to describe it.) It's urinating, and it's just part of being a living, breathing, fully functioning organism.

So why not use it for something useful?

That was the thinking behind this safe, efficient method for producing energy onboard an aircraft. It involves a common process for converting hydrogen into electrical energy – aluminum particles plus water – that can then be used to power much of the electrical activities onboard the plane, like heating food in the cabin, de-icing the plane and heating jet fuel before starting the engines. The breakthrough is that it doesn't require heavy, inefficient storage of hydrogen because it's produced in-flight, using water already onboard – from both fresh and waste sources.

airplane cabin with flight attendant serving beverages.Could required bathroom breaks one day be a part of your flight? (Photo: BePhumirat/Shutterstock)

The technique was developed by a group of researchers at Technion, a prestigious institute that's often referred to as the MIT of Israel. At the helm of the research is Shani Elitzur, an engineer at Technion who's been studying hydrogen energy for years and won an award for Young Innovator of the Year in 2015.

"Hydrogen produced onboard the aircraft during flight can be channeled to a fuel cell for electrical energy generation," Elitzur said. "This technology offers a good solution to several challenges, such as hydrogen storage, without the problems associated with storing hydrogen in a liquid or gas state."

While hydrogen fuel as a replacement for jet fuel is not a new concept, storage has always been a key barrier to progress. At Technion, the group of researchers – including Professor Alon Gany and Dr. Valery Rosenband – were able to work around that barrier by using non-polluting Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells and their own patented process of aluminum activation.

"The possibility of using available, onboard wastewater boosts both the efficiency and safety of the system," Rosenband said. "Also, the PEM fuel cells exhibit high efficiency in electric energy generation."

The technique has already been implemented by at least one major carrier. Boeing has been experimenting with onboard fuel cells in smaller aircraft and hopes to use them as part of its groundbreaking electric model, the 787-8. The Technion researchers in Israel are anticipating widespread adoption for commercial use in the near future. No word, though, on how much water we'll all have to drink before boarding.


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Could airplanes one day be fueled by ... you?
Researchers developed a way to produce hydrogen onboard airplanes without having to transport bulky storage tanks.