Aviation fuel research by Perse student published in science journal

Mariam Abiani (Upper Sixth) is flying high after her research into alternative fuels to power aircraft was published in a renowned scientific journal.

She investigated the topic for her Rouse Award project in Lower Sixth and her findings have now been featured in the Young Scientists’ Journal.

Mariam said: “I’m very happy. My research was actually originally accepted for publication at the very beginning of summer last year, so to see it finally up was super exciting.”

For her project, she investigated the issues for the future of commercial aviation in trying to move away from a reliance on non-renewable fuels to find other forms of energy.

Mariam said: “The challenge with finding an alternative to kerosene is that few fuels match up to its energy provisions and can also be integrated into a fuel system on board.”

She ruled out solar and battery power, as current technology would not be able to provide the amount of energy needed, and nuclear power due to the extreme challenge of integrating a nuclear reactor into a plane and that it technically comes from a finite source.

Instead, Mariam focused much of her research on the viability of liquid hydrogen and biofuels as potential alternatives, assessing energy provision and how engine and plane design may have to change to accommodate this new fuel, as well as considering economic, environmental and political factors.

She felt liquid hydrogen would be “an exciting prospect for the future as it provides huge amounts of energy and burns quite cleanly relative to kerosene.”

However, Mariam found because hydrogen is only in a liquid state at extremely low temperatures and takes up much larger amounts of volume than current aviation fuel to make the same amount of energy, it would mean a radical redesign of current planes and fuelling systems if used.

“This was definitely my favourite part of my research,” said Mariam. “I investigated many different potential designs for a liquid hydrogen plane, such as fuel tanks being integrated above the passenger cabin, along the fuselage, or an even more ambitious blended wing-body design, which looks a bit like a spaceship from a sci-fi movie, but I ruled it out as being a realistic option for the near future.”

Mariam concluded that biofuels offered the most immediate solution in the near term as little change would be needed to convert existing aircraft, making it economically advantageous.

She said: “It seems foreseeable that as biofuels become more economically competitive with kerosene, once kerosene prices begin to greatly inflate, biofuels will pave the way in the near future for commercial flight without fossil fuels.”

Seeing these developments makes me excited for a potential career in this industry and eager to keep researching this topic

Mariam Abiani

Mariam wants to pursue a career in aerospace engineering and after completing her project, she was thrilled to complete two weeks of virtual work experience with Airbus.

“It was particularly exciting that I got to see how it linked with my research,” she said. “They are investing large amounts into developing hydrogen-powered aircraft and many of the different proposed designs were similar to the ones I had predicted.

“On top of this, many airlines have been releasing plans to start running on 100% biofuels. In December last year, United Airlines made history by operating the first commercial flight to use 100% biofuel in one of the two engines.

“Seeing these developments, and some of the predictions I made coming true, makes me excited for a potential future career in this industry and eager to keep researching this topic.

“I want to work towards bridging the gap between engineering, aerospace technology and sustainability. I think this is where I can have the greatest impact on the world and it’s also what I’m most passionate about.

“If all goes well, maybe I’ll find myself working for NASA in 10 to 15 years’ time!”


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