IMAGE: PLANE POWERED BY HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS
Ron Bookout  /  Boeing via AFP-Getty Images
Boeing's experimental aircraft powered by hydrogen fuel cells is seen at its airfield in Ocana, Spain.
msnbc.com
updated 4/3/2008 10:47:28 AM ET 2008-04-03T14:47:28

Engineers from across Europe have successfully developed and flown a manned airplane powered by hydrogen and fuel cells — a first in history and a step towards cleaner and more energy-efficient aviation, Boeing announced Thursday.

The breakthrough is "full of promises for a greener future," Boeing Chief Technology Officer John Tracy told reporters at the company's research center in Ocana, Spain, where the aircraft was on display.

Given rising fuel costs and concerns about climate change, the air industry is keen to find ways to cut energy bills and emissions tied to global warming. While hydrogen is still expensive to produce as an energy carrier, it emits no pollutants.

"Boeing recognizes that pollution represents a serious environmental challenge," Tracy added.

The two-seat, propeller-driven plane flew three test flights in February and March at the airfield in Ocana, Boeing said.

During the flights, the pilot climbed to 3,300 feet using lithium batteries and power generated by hydrogen fed into fuel cells, which in turn create electricity to power an electric motor.

After reaching the cruise altitude and disconnecting the batteries, the pilot flew straight and level at a cruising speed of 60 miles per hour for approximately 20 minutes on electric power solely generated by the fuel cells, Boeing said.

IMAGE: MOTOR COMPARTMENT OF PLANE
Philippe Desmazes  /  AFP-Getty Images
Boeing employees in Ocana, Spain, on Thursday show off the motor of the experimental aircraft.
The auto industry has been working on developing hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles but obstacles include the costs of producing fuel cells, the cost of producing hydrogen, the lack of a broad supply infrastructure.

On the other hand, fuel cells are two to three times more efficient in converting energy than today's internal combustion engines.

Boeing doesn't expect fuel cells to completely power large aircraft, but it does see a role powering small manned and unmanned aircraft.

"Over the longer term," the company said in a statement, "solid oxide fuel cells could be applied to secondary power-generating systems, such as auxiliary power units for large commercial airplanes."

Boeing added that it "will continue to investigate their potential, as well as other sustainable alternative fuel and energy sources that improve environmental performance."

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