The first manned flights of a fuel cell-powered light aircraft have taken place in Spain. But the tiny plane is dramatically different from the passenger jets we’re used to.
In fact, this aircraft is based on an existing motorised glider called the Dimona, which has a wingspan of just over 16m (50-plus ft). It has been kitted out as a flying test bed to demonstrate the application of sustainable energy in aviation.
The fuel cell has been developed by Intelligent Energy, which is a British company, and “hybridised” with lithium-ion batteries to power an electric motor coupled to a conventional propeller.
It was only last month that Intelligent Energy said the plane had flown several times, with three test flights in February and March at an airfield near Madrid.
Each time, the pilot climbed to an altitude of 3,300ft above sea level using a combination of battery power and power generated by the hydrogen fuel cells and continued in a straight path at the cruising altitude for 20 minutes at a speed of 62mph on power solely generated by the fuel cells. Henri Winand, who is the boss of Intelligent Energy, said the flights heralded a “new dawn for clean aviation”.
It is an exciting development, but it is unlikely to be used to power large passenger aircraft, except in some sort of auxiliary power support role.
According to Boeing researchers, fuel-cell technology could potentially power small manned and unmanned aircraft. Fuel cells could be applied to secondary power generating systems such as auxiliary power units for large commercial airplanes.
While Boeing does not envisage that fuel cells will provide primary power for large passenger airplanes, the company will continue to investigate their potential, as well as other sustainable alternative fuel and energy sources that improve environmental performance.
However, the idea of motor gliders is not new – they fly regularly at Aboyne, home of Deeside Gliding Club. Perhaps in the not too distant future, Dimonas and other motorised gliders will offer fuel-cell propulsion as an alternative to the current tiny internal combustion engine.
They could face competition from gliders fitted with solar panels. With thin-film solar devices becoming a reality – they would act like an outer skin on the upper surface of the wings – the solar glider could become an elegant option.
Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity from hydrogen. They can be modified to provide power for many applications, including aerospace and defence, as well as being ideal for zero-emissions commuter transport vehicles.