Sunday, October 4, 2009

CASE STUDY: A Hydrogen Cell Experiment Pays Off - First Fuel Cell Powered Flight Takes Off

By Deb Powers

On a bright, blue morning at Hamburg Airport, the aeronautics industry came a giant step closer to changing the future path of alternative energy aircraft. That's the morning that the Antares DLR H-2 motor glider became the first aircraft in history to take off solely under hydrogen cell power. While both the Antares and a Boeing hydrogen fuel cell powered plane have flown before, Tuesday, July 7, 2009 marks the first time that any manned aircraft has achieved lift-off without the assistance of a hybrid electric motor.

The Antares DLR H-2 was developed by the German Aerospace Center - Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, shortened to DLR in common speech. Lange Aviation, BASF Fuel Cells and Serenergy, a Danish company that provides hydrogen fuel cells for DLR's flight research. The small craft is capable of speeds up to 187 miles per hour, though it only reached 105 miles per hour on its maiden hydrogen-powered takeoff, thanks to the extra weight of additional hydrogen cells.

History of Hydrogen Cell Experiment Planes

The development of hydrogen-powered airplanes has been rapid. The first full-size hydrogen cell aircraft took to the air in August, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. At just about the same time, researchers at Georgia Institute for Technology also launched an unmanned aerial vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Both flew for several minutes on pure hydrogen power, but required a boost from the airplane's battery to get airborne. Less than a year later on April 6, 2007, the DLR made history when their Hyfish took off over the hills of Bern, Switzerland without the assistance of any hybrid power source.

Almost a year later to the day, Boeing joined the history making when the aircraft giant put the first manned hydrogen-powered aircraft into the air above Ocana, Spain. The plane, a small, white prop-driven two-passenger model, had a flying time of 45 minutes. The pilot shared the cockpit with a battery pack in the passenger seat. Once airborne, the plane was powered solely by hydrogen though it used electricity from the plane's battery to get into the air. At the time, a Boeing spokesman said that hydrogen cells might be used to power small planes in the future, but were unlikely to become "the primary energy source for commercial airplanes."

In just 16 months, the DLR had brought the research on hydrogen cell airplanes to the point of a manned takeoff relying solely on the power provided by the experimental hydrogen fuel cells. The agency expects that further research and optimisation will give the Antares the capability of flying 300 kilometres per hour. The light plane's time in air has increased from 45 minutes to 4.5 hours, and its range has increased to 750 kilometres.

The Future of Hydrogen Cell Planes

While the DLR has stopped short of saying that the hydrogen cell experiment will be able to solely power a commercial aircraft anytime soon, the agency is already working toward making hydrogen fuel cells that will provide auxiliary power for those commercial aircraft. For the next three years, the Antares will make its home at the Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg where it will serve as a flying test platform for new hydrogen cell experiments and developments. If the DLR's plans go as expected, it may be as little as five years before hydrogen fuel cells are being used to provide on board power for large capacity airplanes.

Deb Powers is a freelance writer and researcher who writes frequently about renewable energy and global warming. She has been an environmental activist since the 1970s, and continues to work toward a greener planet by highlighting advances in alternative energy sources, promoting Fair Trade causes and participating in local environmental activism.

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