Researchers at Boeing aircraft explore the future of aerospace applications powered by fuel cell technology.
Boeing prepares European-built fuel cell demonstrator airplane
In an effort to develop environmentally progressive technologies for aerospace applications, Boeing researchers and industry partners throughout Europe plan to conduct experimental flight tests this year of a manned airplane powered only by a fuel cell and lightweight batteries.
The systems integration phase of the Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane research project, under way since 2003 at Boeing Research and Technology Europe, was recently completed. Thorough systems integration testing is now under way in preparation for upcoming ground and flight testing.
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts hydrogen directly into electricity and heat without combustion. Fuel cells are emission-free and quieter than hydrocarbon fuel-powered engines. They save fuel and are cleaner for the environment.
The Boeing demonstrator uses a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell/lithium-ion battery hybrid system to power an electric motor, which is coupled to a conventional propeller. PEM fuel cells, also known as polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells can employ various nanotechnology applications for instance, metal nanoparticles to improve the electrolyte of the PEM. The fuel cell provides all power for the cruise phase of flight. During takeoff and climb, the flight segment that requires the most power, the system draws on lightweight lithium-ion batteries.
Fuelling the future
Boeing researchers see promise in other types of fuel cell technology as well as the PEM system. An example is a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell that could be applied to secondary powergenerating systems, such as auxiliary power units. This technology could be mature enough in 10 to 15 years for potential use in commercial aviation.
The PEM fuel-cell system used on the flight demonstrator was designed and built by the UK-based firm Intelligent Energy. The demonstrator aircraft is a Dimona motor glider, built by Diamond Aircraft Industries of Austria, which also performed major structural modifications to the aircraft. With a wing span of 16.3 meters (53.5 feet), the airplane will be able to cruise at approximately 100 kilometres per hour (62 miles per hour) using fuel cell-provided power.
The Madrid-based avionics group Aerlyper performed airframe modifications, as well as the mounting and wiring of all components; SAFT France designed and assembled the auxiliary batteries and the backup battery; Air Liquide Spain performed the detailed design and assembly of the onboard fuel system and the refuelling station; the Electronic Engineering Division of the Polytechnic University of Madrid (School of Industrial Engineering) collaborated in the design and construction of the power management and distribution box.