This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

April 16, 2008

Boeing Flies First Fuel-Cell-Powered Manned Aircraft

Boeing made aviation history in February and March by achieving the first manned flight of a fuel-cell-powered aircraft. The two-seat motorized glider combines a fuel cell with a lithium-ion battery to power a motor, which turns the propeller. During the flights, the experimental airplane climbed to 3,300 feet above sea level using a combination of battery power and power generated by hydrogen fuel cells. After reaching the cruise altitude and disconnecting the batteries, the pilot flew straight and level at a cruising speed of 62 miles per hour for about 20 minutes, using power generated solely by the fuel cells. UQM Technologies, Inc. provided the aircraft's motor and announced the Boeing achievement. According to UQM, Boeing does not envision that fuel cells will ever provide primary power for large passenger airplanes, but the company will continue to investigate their potential, as well as other sustainable alternative fuel and energy sources that improve environmental performance. See the UQM press release and Boeing's announcement of its preparations for the flight last year.

Boeing is also teaming up with GE Aviation and Continental Airlines to demonstrate the use of biofuels in commercial aircraft. Early next year, one of Continental's commercial aircraft—a Boeing Next-Generation 737—will be fueled with a blend of biofuel and jet fuel and flown on a demonstration flight. To prepare for that flight, the companies will first perform laboratory and ground-based jet engine performance testing to ensure compliance with stringent aviation fuel performance and safety requirements. In the months leading up to the flight, Continental, Boeing, and GE will work with an undisclosed fuel provider to identify sustainable fuel sources that can be produced in sufficient quantities to meet the needs for both the pre-flight testing and the demonstration flight. Virgin Atlantic flew a biofuel demonstration flight of a Boeing 747-400 in February. See the press releases from GE Aviation and Virgin Atlantic.

As noted in the GE Aviation press release, Continental Airlines has been streamlining its operations and shifting to more fuel-efficient aircraft, achieving a 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption per mainline revenue passenger mile flown over the past 10 years. High fuel costs are pushing all airlines to take similar measures; in March, United Airlines announced plans to retire 15 to 20 older, less fuel-efficient aircraft by year's end. The fuel crunch has inspired Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. to create a new aircraft company that will start selling a fuel-efficient regional jet in 2013. The jet will carry 70 to 90 passengers and will incorporate efficient engines, lightweight composite materials, and advanced aerodynamics. Meanwhile, Boeing's large-scale version of the same approach, the 250-seat 787-8 Dreamliner, has been delayed again. Boeing now plans to take the Dreamliner on its first flight late this year, with the first deliveries starting late in 2009. See the press releases from United, Mitsubishi, and Boeing.