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Boeing to test fuel-cell powered publicity plane

Reveals distinct lack of interest in fuel-cells

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Boeing's European research centre has developed an experimental fuel-cell-powered manned aircraft, which is about to begin testing.

The US aerospace giant's Madrid-based Boeing Research & Technology Europe (BR&TE) business unit has been working on the "Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane" (FCDA) project since 2001.

A clutch of European companies and universities have provided most of the technology, and flight tests will be conducted this year in Spain.

The demonstrator is actually a modified glider rather than a conventional powered airframe, unsurprisingly considering the low output offered by current fuel-cell technology. Even with a glider's lessened thrust requirement, and only a single pilot aboard, the FCDA cannot take off or climb on fuel-cell power alone. It has a battery pack, which supplies extra power to the electrically-driven propeller to get it off the ground.

The programme isn't intended to be a real fuel-cell aircraft, but it "will demonstrate for the first time that a manned airplane can maintain a straight level flight with fuel cells as the only power source".

That isn't exactly a massive achievement for the fuel cell. It's actually rather less than the performance that can be achieved using the pilot's muscles: a human-powered aircraft took off without supplementary energy sources and flew across the English Channel as long ago as 1979.

Even this relatively unimpressive milestone hasn't been easy to reach. Flight tests were originally scheduled for 2004. That slipped to "late 2004 or early 2005", and then to this year. Six years of development to arrive with less capability than a late-'70s flying pedalo doesn't seem like a brilliant deal for Boeing's shareholders. But the company isn't worried.

"The participating companies...are sharing the project research costs," according to Boeing. And anyway, these costs aren't large. Michael Friend, BR&TE programs eirector, estimated $1.5m in 2003. This sort of cash is peanuts to Boeing; it'd happily pay that much just for the headlines this project has earned, and the slight tinge of eco-friendliness thereby added to the company's otherwise not-exactly-green reputation.

And it is a pretty faint tinge of green, actually. "Fuel cells are emission-free and quieter than hydrocarbon fuel-powered engines. They save fuel and are cleaner for the environment," says the Boeing release, and of course this is true. But hydrogen for fuel cells has to be made using energy. Hydrogen-powered engines merely shift the emissions/waste problems to the fuel plant; they don't eliminate them.

There will never be enough solar or wind power even to supply existing electricity demand, let alone even more to make hydrogen with. Useful fuel-cell planes – even if they could be built – wouldn't allow the human race to get by without hydrocarbon or nuclear power.

Anyway, Boeing admits outright that "fuel cells and electric motors will not replace jet engines on commercial transports". In other words, they will have no significant environmental impact on the aviation industry.

The most the company really hopes for the technology is that it might replace the present Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) fitted in airliners. The APU is a small extra jet engine, usually mounted in the tail, which can provide electric power to the aircraft's systems, either in an emergency or when the main engines are shut down on the ground. Even that's a long way off.

So much for Boeing's new green credentials. But the company is probably looking for other PR benefits from the FCDA. In particular, Boeing would like to generate a bit of goodwill outside the US.

"It's about establishing relationships with companies and universities, especially in Europe," said Friend. Or perhaps more accurately, it's about chumming up to European governments who have a lot of influence over airlines - Boeing's main customers. A lot of European national airlines operate Boeing planes, and Boeing would like this to continue.

But Boeing don't expect to unseat the likes of Airbus and EADS in European affections. It'll happily put on sideshows like this one in Europe. But when Boeing has a genuine big-budget hi-tech demonstrator to build, which it thinks might actually lead somewhere important, it won't give the job to BR&TE in Madrid. The X-37 hypersonic spaceplane, for instance, seems more likely to be put together at the Phantom Works in America.

If Boeing really believed in fuel-cell planes, it'd be doing the same thing with those. But it doesn't – it's admitted as much. ®

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