Chinese methanol-powered drone flies for 12 hours

by Michael Willoughby

Scientists working on a drone development programme created a “game-changing” methanol-powered fuel system that kept their UAV in the air for 12 hours, according to the South China Morning Post.

“It took them more than two years to get the FY-36 unmanned aerial vehicle to the flying prototype stage, Zhang Wenyu, general manager of Feye UAV Technology told the Post.

The Tianjin-based drone manufacturer collaborated with the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in northeastern Liaoning province,” said the paper.

The article continues: “At 15 kilograms (33 pounds), the low-noise FY-36 can be lifted by an adult or transported in a pickup truck, and designers said its hybrid aerodynamic shape – with four vertical propellers – can allow it to cruise at speeds as high as 90km/h, or 56mph.

“With a payload of up to three kilograms, the FY-36 was designed to perform tasks such as power line inspection, search and rescue missions, geological mapping and military intelligence gathering, but its power source is what stands out.”

According to the report, its methanol fuel cell was designed to generate enough electricity for a flight time of up to 12 hours per charge. By comparison, a low-cost lithium-powered Chinese DJI Spark “selfie drone” can stay in the air for 15 minutes, while the professional-grade DJI Inspire 2 can barely top half an hour using a lithium-ion battery pack.

“There were tons of problems which had to be solved on the ground” before the FY-36 took its maiden flight in November, Zhang – who described the technology as a “game-changer” – said on Monday.

“Batteries that run on methanol – a plentiful fuel – are simple. When the colourless alcohol flows through the battery cell, its molecules are broken apart by a catalyst into carbon dioxide and water, a process that releases a huge amount of electrons. Methanol, in theory, can store 70 times more energy than lithium-ion,” the paper points out.

“We are definitely interested in the methanol battery,” said Xiao Yan, a manager at drone service provider Eagle Brother based in Shenzhen, southern Guangdong province, which was not involved in the project.

“Endurance – time in the air – was a big issue in the UAV business, he said, and most of the drones in Eagle Brother’s lithium-powered fleet had to change their depleted batteries every 30 minutes.
The company – which provides drones to agriculture – had considered fossil fuels, Xian said. On a small drone, engine cooling was a challenge, especially under the summer heat. Adding a cooling system to a petrol engine would not only increase the cost of the drone, but cut the size of its payload,” the report said.

It continued: “To join the Eagle Brother fleet, drones were expected to lift as much as its lithium-powered models and come in at an “affordable” price. The company’s website showed drones capable of lifting 16kg.”

For more information

https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3042818/chinese-scientists-create-game-changer-methanol-battery-keeps