Fuel Cells Take To The Runway

We didn’t know much about hydrogen-powered fuel cells prior to writing this month’s cover story on how one business, already successful in powering forklifts with fuel cells, sees a bright future in doing the same with ground support equipment.

Plus, it has a $2.5 million grant from the DOE and proven relationships with other related companies interested in this new source of fuel, such as a company that can supply hydrogen almost as matter-of-fact as we drive up to the gas pump for our cars.

In our research, we found a couple of other recent, noteworthy ways the aviation industry is trying out fuel cells to make air travel that much more efficient and safer to the environment.

Airbus, for example, is planning to test fly an A320 by 2015 using a 90-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell to power most of the aircraft’s nonpropulsive systems typically done by the engines during flight and by an APU on the ground.

One idea is to reduce the drain placed on the engines during flight. Aircraft, for example, are often designed with engines larger than needed to provide this extra juice. The other idea is to simply get rid of the APU. As a result of either idea, weight is reduced, but more importantly, power burns cleaner and more efficiently.

Not to be outdone, however, Japan’s Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries reported in October flying a 737 for five hours above Seattle with its fuel cell system.

When everything is said and done, hydrogen fuel cells are hardly the stuff of science fiction. Rather, their main advantage is the ability to directly convert chemical energy to electrical energy.

Those last two items are old chums, a part of everyday modern life. The trick, of course, is to integrate these two mature technologies and do it at a price that makes sense.

While we didn’t see any pictures of the IHI fuel cells, we expect our two old friends no doubt needed extender belts during the flight, all the while happily wolfing down the fossil fuel equivalent of filet mignon.

The IHI news is part of an annual collaboration with Boeing, American Airlines and the FAA, which recently assembled an American 737-800 loaner to serve as a “flying test bed” to validate new technologies.

The IHI system won’t be commercialized until sometime after 2020, and the company has already been working with Boeing for the past 13 years on this technology.

But it’s a start, isn’t it? An internal combustion engine basically converts chemical energy into mechanical energy. Simple thing really. However, it took about a half century to make the contraption the least bit commercially viable and another 20 years after that to put an engine into the first production automobiles for the landed gentry and still another 20 years passed until cars were affordable for the rest of us.