Hydrogen fuel cells are not new technology but are an intriguing alternative power source. A fuel cell is a device that can convert hydrogen into electricity and is effectively a zero-emissions fuel source in operation (though not in manufacturing). It is commonly deployed in automobiles, and has also been used as a supplementary source of energy within buildings. Last week, Boeing demonstrated a small manned Dimona motor glider using only hydrogen fuel cells, making it the first time that a manned airplane has ever flown on this technology.
The plane was a two-seat Dimona motor glider with a 53 feet span adapted to fuel cell technology by an engineering team at Boeing Research & Technology Europe (BR&TE) in Madrid, with assistance from industry partners in Austria, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. The milestone manned flight reached an altitude of 3,300 feet, using a combination of battery power and power generated by hydrogen fuel cells, and then flew an additional 20 minutes on hydrogen power only at a speed of 62 miles per hour.
Boeing says fuel cells are unlikely to be able to power a larger commercial plane, but they can certainly be used for smaller planes, unmanned aircraft and to power the smaller, secondary systems of large airliners. Still, it sure would be nice if Boeing could develop the system to be powerful enough to replace the more common petroleum based fuels required to fulfill our current aviation needs.