The recent pioneering achievements of US aircraft giant Boeing were something of a world first in putting into the air a plane powered by a hydrogen-cell battery, but could also help to convince the masses of the benefits of a future hydrogen economy.
The widely publicised hydrogen flight made waves across the media as this almost historic moment captured the imagination of the waiting world, while similarly, the public perception of hydrogen as the first choice fuel of the future may have been enhanced by the opening of the first hydrogen fuel station in the UK at Birmingham University.
Such positive publicity could be essential if the successful adoption of a hydrogen infrastructure is to be implemented and favoured by the masses and the achievements of the Boeing team could well have gone a long way to driving this forward.
The Boeing test plane was a small, white prop-driven aircraft capable of carrying two people and flew at a speed of 100km (62 miles) an hour for about 20 minutes at an altitude of 1,000m (3,300 feet) using only the hydrogen battery for power and with just the pilot on board.
“For the first time in the history of aviation, Boeing has flown a manned airplane that was powered by a hydrogen battery,” Boeing chief technology officer John Tracy said.
With a wingspan of 16.3m and at 6.5m long, the aircraft weighs approximately 800kg and was flown over the airport at Ocana, Spain, with the battery kept in the passenger seat - while the pilot had an oxygen tank similar to the ones used by divers on his back. Boeing noted that the plane had a flying time of 45 minutes and while the company said that hydrogen fuel cells could be used to power small planes, it did not believe they could become the primary power source for large passenger aircraft.
Optimism is rife though and the development was described as “a historical technological success for Boeing (and) ... full of promises for a greener future,” as Tracy commented at a news conference at the firm's research centre in the central Spanish town of Ocana.
Director of Boeing's research centre at Ocana, Francisco Escarti, said “The company will continue to explore their potential as well as that of all durable sources of energy that boost environmental performance.”
Demand for cleaner, safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles and airplanes is growing amid rising costs and concerns over pollution and climate change, with Boeing continuing to work on such concepts and technologies in the future.
Escarti explained, “Boeing is actively working to develop new technologies for environmentally progressive aerospace products. We are proud of our pioneering work during the past five years on the Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane project. It is a tangible example of how we are exploring future leaps in environmental performance, as well as a credit to the talents and innovative spirit of our team.”