April 4, 2008

Boeing Tests First Hydrogen-Powered Plane

Boeing has successfully tested the first manned, hydrogen-powered plane over the skies of Spain.

The diminutive propeller-driven craft has made three short flights at an airfield south of Madrid.

The plane is powered by hydrogen fuel cells and produces only heat and water exhaust"”which could pave the way for a new generation of greener aircraft.

"These flights were a historical technological success and full of promises for a greener future", said John Tracy, chief technology officer at Boeing.

The two-seater aircraft were tested in February and March at an airfield in Ocana, south of Madrid. The planes are modified to include a hybrid battery and fuel cell system developed by UK firm Intelligent Energy.

The fuel cells create electricity by combining oxygen and hydrogen that power an electric motor coupled to a propeller.

Boeing said the plane has a flying time of 45 minutes but tests were limited to around half that time.

The plane relies entirely on the cells, but batteries are used to provide an additional boost during take-off.

The tests were successful, but the firm said they do not believe fuel cells could be the primary power source for large passenger aircraft.

According to Nieves Lapena, the engineer responsible for the test flights, the cells could be used as a secondary source of energy for large planes, but this may take some time to develop.

"In my opinion, we are talking about a delay of about twenty years," she said.

These are the first hydrogen-powered planes to be flown with a human pilot onboard.

In 2005, California-based AeroVironment successfully completed test flights of its Global Observer craft which was powered by liquid hydrogen.

Several companies are looking to develop more environmentally-friendly planes, amid concerns over their contribution to climate change.

The airline Virgin Atlantic conducted the first commercial flight powered partly by biofuel earlier this year.

Last year, defense firm Qinetiq flew a solar-powered plane, called the Zephyr, for 54 hours, easily breaking the official world record for the longest-duration unmanned flight.

The craft could be used for military applications, as well as for Earth-observation and communications.

NASA has developed other unmanned prototypes.

Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard plans to launch Solar Impulse, a manned plane in which he will attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 2010.

The craft will have a huge wingspan of 262ft, wider than the wings of the Airbus A380.

The plane can be piloted by only one person at a time and requires frequent stopovers.

The test-flight plan will consist of five legs each lasting between four or five days.