Boeing announces first-ever flight of a manned hydrogen fuel cell-powered airplane
The fuel-cell powered Dimona experimental airplane
Thu 3 Apr 2008 – Boeing has revealed successful flight testing of a manned airplane powered by hydrogen fuel cells, the first time in aviation history. The technology converts hydrogen directly into electricity and heat with none of the products of combustion such as carbon dioxide. However, the aircraft manufacturer does not envision that fuel cells will ever provide primary power for large passenger airplanes.
The project, which started in 2003, is the work of an engineering team at Boeing Research & Technology Europe (BR&TE) in Madrid, part of the Boeing Phantom Works advanced R&D unit, with assistance from industry partners in Austria, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“Boeing is actively working to develop new technologies for environmentally progressive aerospace products,” said Francisco Escarti, BR&TE’s Managing Director. “We are proud of our pioneering work during the past five years on the Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane project. It is a tangible example of how we are exploring future leaps in environmental performance, as well as a credit to the talents and innovative spirit of our team.”
A two-seat Dimona motor-glider with a 16.3-metre (53.5-foot) wingspan was used as the airframe. Built by Diamond Aircraft Industries of Austria, it was modified by BR&TE to include a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell/lithium-ion battery hybrid system to power an electric motor coupled to a conventional propeller.
Three test flights took place in February and March at an airfield in Ocaña, south of Madrid, operated by the Spanish company SENASA. During the flights, the pilot climbed to an altitude of 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) using a combination of battery power and power generated by the hydrogen fuel cells. Then, after reaching cruise altitude and disconnecting the batteries, the pilot maintained a cruising speed of 100km per hour (62mph) for about 20 minutes on power solely generated by the fuel cells.
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts hydrogen directly into electricity and heat with none of the products of combustion such as carbon dioxide. Other than heat, water is its only exhaust.
According to Boeing researchers, PEM fuel cell technology could power small manned and unmanned air vehicles. Over the longer term, Boeing says solid oxide fuel cells could be applied to secondary power-generating systems, such as auxiliary power units (APUs) for large commercial airplanes. However, it does not envision that fuel cells will ever provide primary power for large passenger airplanes but, it says, “the company will continue to investigate their potential, as well as other sustainable alternative fuel and energy sources that improve environmental performance.”
Airbus is also working on fuel cell technology and in February carried out tests of a hydrogen and oxygen based fuel cell system on board an A320 test aircraft that powered the aircraft’s back-up hydraulic and electric power systems, as well as operated the ailerons (see story). Airbus, too, envisages fuel cells may be used for operating APUs in the future.
Late last year, a small French company, APAME, made the first-ever battery-powered flight in a conventional single-seater light aircraft. Called the Electra, it flew for 48 minutes for 50km (30 miles) around the southern Alps.