The world’s first fuel cell only powered airplane has taken off, flown at altitude and then landed in Stuttgart, Germany. This not the first fuel cell airplane to go aloft, however. Back on April 3, 2008, I talked about a Boeing manned single propeller fuel cell airplane taking flight, but this was a hybrid plane partially powered by lithium-ion batteries on the takeoff.
The single prop fuel cell plane that took off in Germany was powered only by the fuel cell, which fed its electrical output to the battery pack, which in turn, turned the electric motor of the propeller. At the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the Antares DLR-H2 glider was powered by a BASF high temperature PEM fuel cell.
The high temperature fuel cell can better burn hydrogen that is less pure that low temperature fuel cells, which would be important if the hydrogen for the airplanes was reformed from Jet-A fuel commonly found at airports. The BASF Celtec membrane electrode assemblies (MEA) performed well in Stuttgart even under low pressure conditions.
Now, just because a single manned, single propped fuel cell airplane is able to takeoff and land safety, does not mean that anytime soon a jumbo jet passenger plane will be doing the same. A more likely scenario aboard larger planes is that fuel cells will be used to power auxiliary onboard systems.
NASA has been using hydrogen fuel cells onboard Apollo, Gemini and Space Shuttle spacecraft for years to supply onboard power plus clean drinking water for the astronauts. The expectations are that fuel cells onboard jumbo jets will perform similar functions.
For the light aircraft enthusiast, however, powering a small single prop airplane with hydrogen is a step in the right direction. Fuel cells and electric motors provide far fewer moving parts that internal combustion engines on aircraft. This means there will be a less likely chance for mechanical failure adding to overall safety.
Some pilots may miss the roar of the aircraft engine shortly after they yell “Clear!” The fuel cell airplane will be quiet by comparison. It will be much easier to soar with the eagles when you don’t sound like a Mack truck in the skies.