Hydrogen-powered airplane takes flight: Boeing

Boeing said Thursday it has successfully test flown a manned, hydrogen-powered plane — a first in aviation.

Boeing said Thursday it has successfully test flown a manned, hydrogen-powered plane — a first in aviation.

The small, propeller-driven plane, powered by a fuel cell, took flight for three 20-minute test flights in the skies south of Madrid in February and March, a milestone Boeing said could blaze a trail for environmentally friendly aviation.

"We are proud of our pioneering work during the past five years on the fuel cell demonstrator airplane project," said Francisco Escarti, the manager of Boeing's European research and technology team.

"It is a tangible example of how we are exploring future leaps in environmental performance."

Hydrogen fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert hydrogen into electricity and heat without producing carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Their only exhaust is heat and water.

While the fuel cells have been used in cars, they are very expensive to produce and take up more space than gasoline or other fuels, requiring large, heavy tanks and frequent refueling.

Boeing officials said these limitations make hydrogen fuel cells unsuitable as a primary fuel source for commercial airplanes, but the company envisions them as part of backup or auxiliary systems.

During the test flights, the pilot of the 16.3-metre-wingspan plane climbed to an altitude of 1,000 metres above sea level using a combination of battery power and hydrogen fuel cell power. The pilot then disconnected the battery and flew at a cruising speed of 100 km/h for 20 minutes solely on energy produced from the cells.

NASA has previously flown hydrogen-powered prototypes, but those vehicles were unmanned.

The announcement comes as European Union officials have raised concerns at an ongoing U.N. climate conference in Bangkok over greenhouse gas emissions from aviation.

On Friday, the conference agreed to consider allowing industrial countries to use emission cuts to aviation to help nations reach their targets for reducing gases as part of negotiations toward drafting an ambitious new treaty on global warming.

European officials said aviation emissions are projected to grow by 90 per cent by 2020.