First Hydrogen Powered Manned Flight

For the first time in aviation history, Boeing flew a manned airplane powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Although unmanned fuel-cell based aircrafts were flown in the past, this manned flight is an important milestone in aircraft engineering, as fuel-cell vehicles appear to be the future transportation technology.
Boeing's fuel-cell based glider (Credit: Boeing)
Boeing’s fuel-cell based glider
(Credit: Boeing)

Three test flights took place in February and March 2008 at the airfield in Ocana, south of Madrid, Spain. During the test flights, a two-seat Dimona motor-glider with a 16.3 meter 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.

During the flights, the pilot of the experimental airplane climbed to an altitude of 1,000 meters above sea level using a combination of battery power and power generated by hydrogen fuel cells. After reaching the cruise altitude and disconnecting the batteries, the pilot flew straight and level at a cruising speed of 100 kilometers per hour for approximately 20 minutes solely on power generated by the fuel cells. Although the takeoff required the use of a regular engine, it is still considered by many in the industry as a remarkable feat.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts hydrogen directly into electricity and heat with none of the polluting products of combustion such as carbon dioxide. Other than heat, water is its only exhaust. This makes it a good substitute for conventional engines used today. According to Boeing researchers, PEM fuel cell technology could potentially power small manned and unmanned air vehicles. In the future, solid oxide fuel cells could be applied to secondary power-generating systems, such as auxiliary power units for large commercial airplanes. Although Boeing does not envision that fuel cells will ever serve as the primary power for large passenger airplanes, the company will continue to investigate the potential of this technology as well as other sustainable alternative fuel and energy sources, all in the name of environmental protection.

20 minutes on fuel-cell power (Credit: Boeing)
20 minutes on fuel-cell
power (Credit: Boeing)

The recent achievement was made thanks to the collaboration between Boeing Research & Technology Europe (BR&TE) in Madrid and industry partners stationed all around the world: in Austria, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The international team is quite proud of their work. Francisco Escarti, BR&TE’s Managing Director, recently said: “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.” Indeed, this accomplishment encourages future tests that will set new marks in aviation.

TFOT has also covered the Zephyr, a solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle which holds the world record for the longest-duration unmanned flight, and the SkyWatcher, a new type of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle tha can also be manned if necessary. Other related stories are the Air Car CityCat, which is equipped with a revolutionary dual-energy compressed air engine, and the Evolution, a unique aircraft that can travel on land, water, and air.

Fore more information about the Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane project, see Boeing’s website.

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