Boeing Frontiers
August 2003
Volume 02, Issue 04
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All eyes are on the Boeing Research and Technology Center in Madrid, where fuel cell research could have far-reaching effects on aviation and other industries


Cool FuelImagine an aviation technology that one day will be so energy-efficient and environmentally preferred that it will revolutionize the commercial airplane industry's use of fuel. If the Boeing Research and Technology Center in Madrid, Spain, has its way, this future won't be so far off.

The center's first major project is one designed to both develop and flight-test a fuel cell-powered electric demonstrator airplane. Recently, the Center—which opened in July 2002—announced both the project and its industry partners. The Fuel Cell Demonstrator airplane is scheduled to make its first flight in late 2004 or early 2005.

Boeing Phantom Works, the advanced research and development unit of the company, operates the R&T Center.

With eyes toward the future, R&T Center officials hope that the research this project conducts and the innovations it discovers will have a far-reaching, long-term impact on worldwide aviation—even though most admit that day-to-day fuel cell airplane use is at least 10 years off. That's why Boeing Commercial Airplanes—which has a vested interest in the project's success—also is closely involved.

"The idea is to develop the expertise and understanding of how to use fuel cells in aerospace applications," said Miguel A. Hernan, R&T Center general director. "We believe fuel cells have great potential to replace aircraft [auxiliary power units]. We are looking into new technologies that could reduce the noise and emissions of our products."

Hernan and his team are working with Commercial Airplanes to investigate technologies that could increase the electricity-generating efficiency of APUs. As future commercial aircraft may depend more heavily on electricity to power onboard systems, this could provide a benefit to the customers and the environment by using less fuel. "Because fuel cells convert fuel directly into electricity and heat without the combustion of a hydrocarbon fuel-powered engine, they are emission-free and thus cleaner for the environment. And because the process also produces water, this water could be used on board a commercial airplane, reducing the amount the plane needs to carry on a long-range flight.

Hernan and R&T Center Programs Director Michael Friend are quick to point out that while the Madrid R&T Center is leading and coordinating the Boeing fuel cell demonstrator project, this will be an international effort.

During the formative stages of the project, it became clear that a NASA-funded U.S. effort led by Worcester, Mass.-based Advanced Technology Products had come to many of the same technical conclusions as the Boeing team, developing a similar fuel cell-powered electric aircraft based upon a French DynAero airplane. Instead of working in parallel, a decision was made to combine the two teams' efforts in order to speed up progress and take advantage of mutually beneficial funding opportunities.

The participating companies will play key roles, working both with the center and the other partners. The companies also are sharing the project research costs, which Friend estimates at about $1.5 million. "That's really the center's approach—it's about establishing relationships with companies and universities, especially in Europe," said Friend. "For instance, we're using the laboratories and workshops of our partners. Our job is to create the networks and relationships with the researchers."

Hernan adds, "Most of our partners see this project more or less as an opportunity to engage with Boeing to know Boeing a little bit better. For us, it's also very interesting because we can collaborate with companies in Europe we never cooperated with in the past."

The partners:

  • Intelligent Energy Ltd., a London-based firm, will provide the Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell together with "balance of plant" hardware and coordinate the various processes that make it work.
  • Sener, a large family-owned Spanish engineering firm that provides control and actuation systems for defense and space technologies, will work with Intelligent Energy to create a new fuel cell controller unit for use in the demonstration program.
  • Diamond Aircraft Industries, an Austria-based company, will supply the demonstrator airplane, which is based on a certified Katana Xtreme (called a "Super Dimona" in Europe) motor-glider.
  • Aerlyper, a small Madrid-based aviation systems company, will make modifications to the Diamond airplane before installation of the fuel cell systems. Fellow partner Sener recommended Aerlyper for the project because of its expertise.
  • Advanced Technology Products Corp. is a small, 5-year-old high-tech Massachusetts firm that will take the Boeing-owned airplanes—with fuel cells installed—and add the batteries, hydrogen fuel storage tanks, electric motor, propeller and master power controllers needed for the electric propulsion system.

Companies such as W.L. Gore—makers of fuel cell components as well as Gore-Tex fabric—have signed on as sponsors, contributing materials that will be built into the demonstrator airplane fuel cell stacks. The Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology Education will work with ATP in this NASA-assisted fuel cell-powered airplane program.

"The combined resources should allow us all to achieve our joint objectives sooner, and with a higher level of success," said Jim Dunn, ATP chief executive officer and the project leader for the United States-based fuel cell airplane project. "Our numerous partners are very excited about this opportunity to demonstrate a new emission-free aircraft propulsion system, which could represent a new 'propulsion paradigm,' a part of the future of aviation."

Beyond establishing relationships with Boeing, partner companies also get a chance to stretch their own research skills.

"Everything we do on this project," said Dennis Hayter, Intelligent Energy managing director-Commercial, "will develop further knowledge for us, which will be of value our other projects."

It's a sentiment echoed by Rafael Quintana, director of the Sener Control and Actuation Systems department.

"The project is interesting to Sener," he said, "because we can see the benefits of this project to automobiles, buses, propulsion trainways in cities, underwater systems ... . There are quite a few applications."

In 2004, Hernan said, the center will involve the Polytechnic University of Madrid in testing of a subscale version of the fuel cells that will power the demonstrator airplane. In addition, the Polytechnic University of Catalunya, near Barcelona, Spain, will work to understand the possible failure modes of this completely new form of airborne electrical power generation.

Friend believes that while the Fuel Cell Demonstrator project benefits Commercial Airplanes most directly, "there are many applications for this technology throughout Boeing. For instance, it's quite conceivable that the military parts of Boeing would see this as interesting for ground vehicles."

From the center's standpoint, the fuel cell project's success will help cement its own reputation as a center of excellence in emerging technologies—as well as reinforce Boeing's commitment to doing business in Spain, and throughout the European Union.

"The first thing we want to do is be credible," Hernan said. "This project will be the proof that we are real. Second, by the end of the project, the center will be identified with a certain area of expertise. That will help us define the center's personality, the identity."

How a fuel cell works: How a fuel cell works:

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts hydrogen directly into electricity and heat without combustion. Because of this reaction, a fuel cell can be more than twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine.

Whereas a conventional engine burns fuel to create heat—in turn converting heat from mechanical energy into electricity—a fuel cell produces electricity, water and heat directly from hydrogen and oxygen. Fuel cells are powered by hydrogen, one of the most abundant elements on the planet. There are different fuel cell types, with Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cells considered to be the most versatile for mass-market applications. These cells contain a solid electrolyte, making it less sensitive to shock and vibration than other fuel cell types—and well-suited to portable and mobile applications.

When fueled with hydrogen, these fuel cells have zero pollutant emissions, have a low noise profile, and can be used to generate heat (for hot water) and power (in a combined heat and power system). They are non-polluting because the only byproduct is pure water. But even when fuel cells are operated using hydrocarbon fuels, pollutant levels are still significantly lower than those produced through traditional combustion.

PEM fuel cells will be used in the Boeing Research and Technology Center Fuel Cell Demonstrator airplane project.

Engineers can combine multiple fuel cells to form a "fuel cell stack." They may use a stack on its own with a direct hydrogen source or integrate it with a number of other components to provide an operational power system tailored for a specific application. —Source: Intelligent Energy Ltd.


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