Today Boeing has announced the first hydrogen-powered manned flight in aviation history. The aircraft climbed to 3,300 feet over Madrid, Spain, using only electricity and probably several bottles of yummylicious Ribera del Duero wine and Iberian Pata Negra ham rations. We talked briefly with Francisco Escartí, Managing Director of Boeing Research & Technology Europe in Madrid:
Jesús Díaz: How much time has Boeing invested in this project?
Francisco Escartí: We have been working in this project for approximately five years.
JD: What's the advantage of this system against traditional engines?
FE: First, this technology only has one byproduct: water. There's no CO2 contamination of any kind. The energy efficiency of these hydrogen cells is double the efficiency of combustion engines.
JD: How does this advantage translate into commercial aviation?
FE: It's difficult to project the energy savings in big aircrafts, but in small airplanes the fuel savings will be important.
The airplane cruised for 20 minutes at 62mph using only hydrogen cells. The bad news, however, is that this technology may never reach large passenger airplanes. At least, not as a main source of power:
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.
The good news is that Boeing Research & Technology Europe in Madrid—part of Boeing Phantom Works advanced R&D unit—will keep researching to see how much these cells can be pushed for commercial aviation. A sign that aircraft companies are working to make their planes more efficient because airlines are fighting in prices and, therefore, they need cheaper flights. The objective of Boeing and other companies is to get more efficient planes that use cheaper energy sources.