How Things Work: Flying Fuel Cells
Out of gas? Not a problem.
- By Michael Klesius
- Air & Space magazine, March 2009
(Page 2 of 2)
Airbus is toying with fuel cell applications too. Last spring, the company ran trials on an A320 airliner proving that a fuel cell could provide power for an electric pump that, through a hydraulic system, moved the airplane’s ailerons, rudder, and other control surfaces while in flight. Before fuel cells will be useful on airliners, however, engineers must find a way to increase their power density. “They have to provide more power at lighter and lighter structure,” Glover says.
As for replacing the raw power of a petroleum-fed jet engine, don’t expect fuel cells to do that any time soon, or ever. They will work quietly behind the scenes to keep the lights on, run the air conditioning, and produce water for the bathrooms, reducing water weight at takeoff. As a key figure bringing fuel cells to aviation, Bill Glover warns that there are still unanswered questions about fuel cell dependability: No one yet knows, for example, how fuel cells will perform in turbulence. So while fuel cells won’t debut on the 787, Boeing has designed the airplane to incorporate them later. Glover says that in the next five years the concepts will be tested in the laboratory, “then we’ll migrate them into flight situations when they mature. We want to make sure this works anywhere around the world.”
It already works out of this world. Three 255-pound fuel cells supply electric power to the space shuttle in orbit and produce more than 26 gallons of fresh water a day.
Michael Klesius is an associate editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian.