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Airbus jets could be converted to fuel-cell propulsion

Only on the ground, though

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Plans are afoot to propel Airbus A320 airliners using clean, green electricity, according to reports. Disappointingly for the carbon-fearing and oil-worrier lobbies alike, however, the aircraft will be so propelled only while on the ground.

"We are looking at installing electric motors in the wheels," Airbus A320 honcho Alain Flourens told Flight magazine yesterday.

The idea is that the big planes would thus be able to taxi about in airports without needing to fire up their main engines. This would happen only once the aircraft was ready for takeoff, and the jets would be shut down again after landing.

Initially at least, the wheel motors would draw their juice from the regular auxiliary power unit (APU) a small gas turbine carried by most airliners in their tails for generating electricity. But this would involve much less wasted energy than running the main engines for taxiing, and would reduce emissions around the airport if not in the upper atmosphere.

There is some prospect in future that gas-turbine APUs might be superseded by fuel cells - Boeing have mooted this possibility, for instance, following an otherwise rather pointless demonstration effort. That could make airliners quite green while on the ground - depending on the sources of the fuel-cell's juice, of course.

Colourful beardy biz kingpin Richard Branson has lately sought to use a somewhat similar idea with his Virgin fleet, in which the jets would have been towed to and from the runway by ground vehicles. This is sometimes done for various reasons with empty aircraft, but it was found that towing fully-loaded planes put unacceptable strains on their undercarriages, and the idea had to be abandoned.

It's not clear at first sight how the Airbus wheel-motor scheme would avoid similar problems, but presumably Flourens knows what he's on about.

In many ways, one has to say it hardly matters: measures such as this are perhaps worth pursuing, but they're hardly going to solve the issues of airline carbon emission, energy security and/or peak oil.

Read the Flight report here. ®

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