July 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 3 
Special Features

International fuel cell efforts include Boeing

A quiet, pollution-free, electric airplane might soon take to the skies. Experts at Boeing Research and Technology Europe in Madrid, Spain, are working on a project called the Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane. This multinational program is providing Boeing people with invaluable firsthand experience in fuel cells and their application to aviation.

BR&TE was formed in July 2002 as a center of excellence in environmental, safety and reliability, and air traffic management technologies. A part of Boeing Phantom Works, the Madrid center collaborates with industry, academia, and other centers of research across the European continent.

As project leader, BR&TE's role is to develop, integrate, validate and fly the Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane. If successful, the program will give BR&TE core expertise in the integration, simulation, and validation of fuel cell applications. Flight tests are scheduled for mid 2006, and much remains to be accomplished before then.

"This is truly exciting work because it's hands-on integration in an environment where the technology is emerging and leadingedge," said Doug Swanson, deputy director, BR&TE. "A challenge we face is making sure the world's fuel-cell developers understand the aviation industry's requirements in terms of specific power density, safety, motion and vibration resistance, and so on. This program's high visibility will help in this regard."

Partnered with Boeing in the Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane Program are

  • QinetiQ, United Kingdom. Advanced technologies including fuel reformer technology.
  • Diamond Aircraft Industries, Austria. Manufacturer of the Super Dimona motor-glider that serves as the program's flying test bed.
  • Intelligent Energy Ltd., United Kingdom. Manufacturer of the proton exchange membrane fuel cell and its associated "balance of plant" hardware.
  • Sener, Spain. Developer of a fuel cell control unit.
  • Aerlyper, Spain. Airplane modification support.

The Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane will have a hybrid fuel cell/battery propulsion system that combines lithium-ion batteries with a proton exchange membrane fuel cell. This cell alone supplies sufficient electrical power for level flight. For takeoff and climb, the airplane's batteries cut in to provide an additional boost.

"Design integration and modeling, weight trades, and the other usual challenges are just part of the picture," Swanson said. "We're really pioneering something new here. For example, we'll be flying on pressurized hydrogen that feeds a fuel cell operating in an environment where it's never been before."

Program plans call for the eventual addition of a fuel reformer to let the demonstrator airplane fly on jet fuel contained in its wing tanks. On a related note, Boeing Phantom Works in Seattle is today working under a U.S. Navy contract to develop an airworthy fuel processor that reforms jet fuel with excellent efficiency and environmental performance.

Before the Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane program ends, it may well show regulators, manufacturers, and the world at large that fuel cells can be called on to meet the stringent requirements of aviation.

"I'm proud that Boeing has this vision for the future," Swanson said. "The company's willingness to promote fuel cells and fund programs like this one shows real foresight and a genuine commitment to the environment."

-Jay Spenser


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