Fuel Cells Take To The Runway

Dec. 25, 2012
Converting one form of energy into another takes time before it makes 'cents.' Just look at the ICE.

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 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 the aircraft’s nonpropulsive systems typically done by the engines during flight and 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 need be to provide this extra juice. The other idea is to not run the engines on the ground and get rid of the APU. As a result of either idea, weight is reduced, but more importantly, power burns cleaner and more efficiently.

The A320 is actually owned by the German Aerospace Center and the center’s engineers already used a fuel cell in 2011 to power the plane’s nose wheel. The fuel cell provided electricity to move the 47-ton plane from gate to end of runway with no power from the engines.

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 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 APU, we expect our two old friends no doubt needed more than one extender belt during the flight, and all the while were happily wolfing down the fossil fuel equivalent of filet mignon.

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

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

But it’s a start. An internal combustion engine basically converts chemical energy into mechanical energy, and it took about a half century to make such a contraption the least bit commercially viable and another 20 years after that to put an engine into the first production automobiles.

About the Author

Steve Smith | Editor