Boeing announced on April 3, 2008, that it has, for the first time in aviation history, flown a manned airplane powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
The recent milestone is the work of 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.
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts hydrogen directly into electricity and heat with none of the products of combustion such as carbon dioxide. Other than heat, water is its only exhaust.
A two-seat Dimona motor-glider with a 16.3 meter (53.5 foot) wingspan was used as the airframe. Built by Diamond Aircraft Industries of Austria, it was modified by BR&TE to include a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell/lithium-ion battery hybrid system to power an electric motor coupled to a conventional propeller.
Three test flights took place in February and March at the airfield in Ocaña, south of Madrid, operated by the Spanish company SENASA.
According to Boeing researchers, PEM fuel cell technology potentially could power small manned and unmanned air vehicles. Over the longer term, solid oxide fuel cells could be applied to secondary power-generating systems, such as auxiliary power units for large commercial airplanes. Boeing does not envision that fuel cells will ever provide primary power for large passenger airplanes, but the company will continue to investigate their potential, as well as other sustainable alternative fuel and energy sources that improve environmental performance.