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PhD student Yazdan Naderzadeh (left) in the Propulsion and Energy Conversion Lab at UTIAS investigates flames with lasers. (Photo: Neil Ta)

U of T Engineering researchers have partnered with Siemens Energy to tackle a key challenge in the energy sector: sustainable energy conversion for propulsion and power generation – such as developing gas turbine engines that can run on sustainable energy sources like hydrogen. Led by Professor Swetaprovo Chaudhuri (UTIAS), the initiative aims to rethink traditional gas turbine engines to reduce carbon emissions from both aviation and land-based fuel consumption.  

Chaudhuri’s team is exploring hydrogen combustion as a viable option since it can be burned without producing carbon dioxide (CO2). However, there’s a significant hurdle in transitioning to this resource. Hydrogen is a small, highly reactive molecule, causing flames to move five to ten times faster than those of natural gas. This makes existing combustors and engines that run on natural gas incapable of handling pure hydrogen. 

Another key challenge is the lack of infrastructure available to transport hydrogen in the same way pipelines are used to move natural gas. Until such infrastructure is developed, Chaudhuri’s team is researching how to build reliable fuel-flex gas turbine engines that can work on both fuels.  

“Hydrogen and natural gas are vastly different, it’s like comparing a Bugatti Veyron to a public bus in both speed and size,” says Chaudhuri. “The critical question is, ‘how can engines be designed to accommodate both fuels seamlessly?’” 

The team is led by Chaudhuri in collaboration with Professor Jeff Bergthorson at McGill University, Professors Bruno Savard and Etienne Robert at Polytechnique Montréal and Dr. Patrizio Vena at National Research Council Canada and Engineers from Siemens Energy Canada in Montreal. The project received an Alliance Mission Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to build a comprehensive understanding that will guide the creation of fuel-flex gas turbine engines.

Yazdan Naderzadeh (UTIAS PhD candidate) and Scott Watson (UTIAS MASc candidate) from the Propulsion and Energy Conversion Lab work with a swirling hydrogen flame. (Photo: Praful Kumar)

The researchers have constructed a model lab-scale combustor at the Propulsion and Energy Conversion Laboratory at UTIAS, to study the behavior of natural gas and hydrogen flames within engines. These experiments aim to understand the intricacies of hydrogen combustion to establish engineering principles and guidelines for future engine development.  

While practical applications are on the horizon, the immediate goal is to establish a robust knowledge base that will be essential for designing engines that can efficiently and safely use hydrogen as a fuel source.  

“Currently, long-range aircrafts cannot, even theoretically, fly on batteries. We need to make significant strides towards combustion engines that use hydrogen or other carbon-neutral fuels to substantially reduce carbon emissions in these critical sectors,” says Chaudhuri. 

In a different, stand-alone project, Chaudhuri and his research group are developing a self-decarbonizing combustor, which separates hydrogen and carbon from natural gas, within the combustor. This process not only allows for hydrogen to be used for fuel but could also allow the carbon byproduct to be used to offset the additional cost associated with decarbonization.  

“Our collaboration with Siemens Energy marks an exciting synergy between academia and industry,” says Chaudhuri. “Siemens Energy’s gas turbines for generating power have historically used natural gas, so this partnership represents a significant step towards a greener future.” 

“Together, we hope to unravel the complexities of hydrogen combustion, paving the way for cleaner and more efficient engines.” 

Supervised by Chaudhuri, Yazdan Naderzadeh (UTIAS PhD candidate) and Scott Watson (UTIAS MASc candidate) are working on this project. The development and commissioning of the fuel-flex combustor, capable of safely stabilizing both hydrogen and natural gas flames, presents numerous research opportunities for students. 

“I am so excited to work on the ongoing fuel-flex combustor project, addressing concerns related to clean emissions and compatibility with conventional gas turbine burners. This endeavor allows for a thorough study and understanding of the challenges associated with hydrogen as prospective fuel in aviation industry and gas power plants,” says Naderzadeh.

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