Boeing has just announced that it is developing a light aircraft powered by hydrogen fuel cells with hopes of making the greenest passenger airplane to fly to-date. Boeing is teaming up with Intelligent Energy, fuel cell maker and manufacturer of the ENV hydrogen motorcycle. In order to overcome the thrust needed for take-offs, the hydrogen aircraft will also employ batteries for needed power, which will then recharge when the aircraft is cruising.
In a separate announcement, researchers at the have successfully flown an unmanned hydrogen powered airplane, which they believe to be the first fuel cell aircraft ever to go aloft. The hydrogen airplane has a 22-foot wingspan and needs no auxiliary power or batteries in order to take off.
Last year, stealth unmanned aircraft maker, AeroVironment, flew a High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) hydrogen-powered airplane, the world’s first liquid hydrogen unmanned aerial vehicle. The hydrogen airplane has a 50-foot wingspan and is capable of flying 65,000 feet for 24 hours with a payload of 1,000 lbs.
A German company called Fraunhofer, as part of the European Union’s Power Optimized Aircraft (POA) project, has developed an auxiliary power system for airplanes combining an autothermal kerosene reformer and solid oxide fuel cell. The reformer turns kerosene into a hydrogen syngas and runs it through the fuel cell to create electricity. Commercial airplanes usually use onboard generators to run auxiliary power and this new power system could reduce the use of jet fuel by 40 – 70 percent.
While lagging behind the automotive industry in creating hydrogen-powered vehicles, the commercial aeronautics industry is finally getting onboard the hydrogen program. As prices keep rising for jet fuel, airlines will be looking towards more economically feasible alternatives and encourage research and development on such alternatives. Who knows, in a few years, we may just be hearing the advertisements on TV and radio saying, “Fly Our Friendly Hydrogen Skies.”