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Boeing Working on Fuel Cell Aircraft 163

Posted by samzenpus
from the 12,000-AA-batteries-not-included dept.
"Boeing is working with development partners on a fuel cell-based small aircraft. It seems like a logical use of the technology. Now if they can come up with a quiet, personal-sized VTOL craft a la Paul Moller's Skycar (which is anything but quiet), we'll really have something." From the article "A Boeing research director was quoted as saying, "While Boeing does not envision that fuel cells will provide primary power for future commercial passenger airplanes, demonstrations like this help pave the way for potentially using this technology in small manned and unmanned air vehicles."
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Boeing Working on Fuel Cell Aircraft

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  • by kmac06 (608921) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @08:43PM (#18523101)
    I want my flying car by 2015 [wikipedia.org].
  • Skycar (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @08:44PM (#18523109)
    The Skycar is vaporware. It has been for the last 30 years. Please don't use the Skycar as a benchmark for anything but hype and failure.
    • Yes, but one reason is Moller's sticking to a flawed plan IMO. He states that he wants *everyone* to be able to have one, and he makes the appropriate design choice for that goal, but it's not an appropriate choice for a product that will be sold within even 10 years. He wants the plane to fly itself. (He also requires what amounts to a complete revamp of the ATC system, but NASA and others are already researching something similar to his needs in that arena)

      As long as that's a requirement, the plane wil
      • by shmlco (594907)
        "As long as that's a requirement, the plane will never be ready."

        Never be ready? I've been following the thing with interest for years, and as far as I know no one's ever seen the thing fly at all. Computerized or not.
        • He claims tethered flight of the M200, (or an alleged M400 that looks suspiciously like a M200 to me...)

          I don't know about the concept: a flying wing four feet wide, eight feet long, and only 400 mph seems a bit ambitious to me, but if the math supports it...

          Though working model in hover mode seems more plausible to me.

          I did not mean to imply that it was finished except for the control system. Although it does seem to me that the control system is significantly holding it back.
          • by shmlco (594907)
            My point exactly. "He claims." No photos. No videos. No demos. You'd think, as many times as it's been "featured" on shows like 20/20 and FutureCar, that "somebody" would have gotten a demo.

            Nope, it's probably as functional as the clay model concept car I saw at a local auto show...
            • by jdray (645332)

              It's tethered, but... http://www.moller.com/medi.htm# [moller.com]

              I'm not saying that Moller isn't something of a crackpot, and I suspect that he makes just enough progress to keep the investments rolling in without having to actually produce something viable on an automotive lot. However, he is making progress, and there may be a market for the vehicles if they work even half as well as he touts.

          • by LWATCDR (28044)
            "I don't know about the concept: a flying wing four feet wide, eight feet long, and only 400 mph seems a bit ambitious to me, but if the math supports it..."
            It doesn't The power to weight ratio required is way more than you could get from any internal combustion engine that is reliable enough for manned flight.
            It has hovered but how much fuel did it carry? How much load?
            The control system is an excuse. Set it up for a conventional pilot if that is possible.
            Frankly the Skycar makes the BD-5 look like a great
        • by GooberToo (74388)
          I have seen a video of a Moller Skycar during a tethered flight. What a joke. It never left ground effect and its stability was a smoldering pile waiting to happen. I'm sure that is why you don't see it and that is why it is not generally available.

          In fact, his project has all the earmarks of the flying saucer efforts (Avro Aircar) efforts during the 50s. The only improvement Moller has over Avro's efforts is it uses less fuel and the risk of falling into the propulsion system is greatly reduced. Aside
      • by GooberToo (74388)
        He wants the plane to fly itself. (He also requires what amounts to a complete revamp of the ATC system, but NASA and others are already researching something similar to his needs in that arena)

        Then don't hold your breath. Funding for the next found of ATC/FAA restrucuring is going before Congress this year. Based on the currently announced plans, it will take 10-20 years before all planes adopt the new ADS-B technology (Info here [wikipedia.org] or here [adsb.gov]. That means several decades before Moller's car can hope to fly it
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      If I were their director of marketing:

      "The Skycar remains perfectly positioned for the expected invention of antigravity."

  • Are the power to weight ratios comparable to current internal combustion engines? If so, great! If not, what about fuel cell powered dirigibles?
    • ha ha (Score:4, Informative)

      by Quadraginta (902985) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @09:54PM (#18523683)
      Are the power to weight ratios comparable to current internal combustion engines?

      You probably mean the external combustion engine, also known as the jet engine. Only small airplanes use pistons and such. And the answer is: of course not. This is yet another PR stunt aimed at the Gasoline Is Eeeeeeevil ninnies of the world who failed freshman chemistry.

      If not, what about fuel cell powered dirigibles?

      I don't think the problem with dirigibles is how to power them. I think the problem is that there's just about zero demand for a transport service that's about as slow as a ship or train but neither as efficient nor as reliable.

      A big cargo ship carrying 70,000 tons of cargo can cruise at 15 knots with its 50,000 HP engines running at 80%. The EPA helpfully estimates [epa.gov] big marine engine fuel consumption as about 250 grams per kilowatt-hour, which lets you work out that a cargo ship consumes about 4 grams of fuel per ton of cargo per kilometer traveled.

      Four locomotives pulling a hundred-car freight train at 60-80 MPH, with each car carrying 100 tons of cargo, will burn about 7.5 gallons [bts.gov] each per mile. That works out to 7 grams of fuel per ton of cargo per kilometer traveled.

      There's no way any vehicle that flies can ever come close to that kind of fuel efficiency. So who would want cargo delivery that's just as slow, but much more expensive?
      • by khallow (566160)
        Wikipedia claims the Hindenburg could reach 135 km per hour, which is comparable with modern cargo trains at full speed and substantially faster than cargo ships. I imagine a modern version could go quite fast compared to the above transportation modes. So it appears to me that there is a niche there that isn't covered by current shipping modes.
      • by mpe (36238)
        You probably mean the external combustion engine, also known as the jet engine.

        A gas turbine is an internal combustion engine. The combustion chambers are between the compressor and turbine stages, more or less in the middle. About the only thing you could call an "external combustion engine" would be a reheat also known as an "afterburner"... AFAIK the only civil aircraft with such engines still flying is NASA's TU144.

        I don't think the problem with dirigibles is how to power them. I think the problem i
        • by Viol8 (599362)
          "About the only thing you could call an "external combustion engine" would be a reheat also known as an "afterburner"."

          And steam engines.
      • by Viol8 (599362)
        "There's no way any vehicle that flies can ever come close to that kind of fuel efficiency."

        Wrong. An airship with a decent tailwind can use virtually zero fuel except that required to reach a given height and adjustment thrusters. An airships fuel efficiency is completely unrelated to that of fixed or rotor wing aircraft. In fact even without a tailwing all an airship with neutral buoancy has to do is fight air resistance , unlike other aircraft which ultimately expend fuel to stay up in the air as well as
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by ChrisMaple (607946)
          Sailing ships make two-way journeys, even in the face of constant prevailing winds, because they can tack. They can tack because they get "traction" in the water and with angled sails can get a thrust vector partially into the wind. This is not the case with airships, where the choices are some combination of
          • use fuel
          • wait for the wind direction to change
          • follow prevailing winds completely around the globe.
  • Unless we're looking at some kind of computer-only piloting, a personal "skycar" would be a very bad idea. That's way too much kinetic energy in the hands of John Q. Public. You think car accidents are bad now? Wait for a midair collision that takes out a whole apartment block.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by retro128 (318602)
      That's way too much kinetic energy in the hands of John Q. Public.

      I believe that's what they said about the automobile 100 years ago.
      • by Loke the Dog (1054294) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @09:16PM (#18523415)
        And automobile accidents is actually a big deal today, so I guess they were right too.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by mgv (198488)
          And automobile accidents is actually a big deal today, so I guess they were right too.

          Considering that 3000 people die per day from car accidents around the world, what we have is a disaster of the proportion of september 11, done daily.

          Generally speaking, most countries seek to blame the individual driver. Most airlines seek to fix the system. And when you look at what they have had to do to make planes safe, its pretty clear that few of us really have a right to lift a few tons of metal into the air ove
          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by QuantumG (50515)
            Maybe, just maybe, 3000 dying a day is acceptable because of the massive public good of swift personal transportation. But you're probably one of those people who thinks nothing can justify accidental deaths, let alone willful killing.
            • by macshit (157376)
              Maybe, just maybe, 3000 dying a day is acceptable because of the massive public good of swift personal transportation.

              Well the thing is that "swift personal transportation" as embodied by current automobiles really isn't much of a "public good" in many cases. Automobiles are well suited to sparsely populated rural environments, and very poorly suited to densely populated urban ones. The fact that they nonetheless are the standard transportation method in many large US cities is largely due to lack of fore
            • by mgv (198488)
              Maybe, just maybe, 3000 dying a day is acceptable because of the massive public good of swift personal transportation. But you're probably one of those people who thinks nothing can justify accidental deaths, let alone willful killing.

              Before you make too many assumptions about me, let me reflect this back on you:

              Do you think that the mass good of air travel justifies the occasional deaths of 3000 people when a few planes fly into buildings?

              If that isn't acceptable, then why should this occuring on a daily b
              • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

                by QuantumG (50515)
                Yes.. in fact, I think it takes a lot more than 3000 deaths to justify the insanity that we have to go through whenever we want to fly. I think the grand total number of deaths due to flying is woefully inadequate to justify the massive concern for "safety" that the airlines are required to exhibit. I think that flying would be more routine and a hell of a lot cheaper if it was more dangerous and people would willingly pay for such a service if only their governments would butt out.
                • by mgv (198488)

                  Yes.. in fact, I think it takes a lot more than 3000 deaths to justify the insanity that we have to go through whenever we want to fly. I think the grand total number of deaths due to flying is woefully inadequate to justify the massive concern for "safety" that the airlines are required to exhibit. I think that flying would be more routine and a hell of a lot cheaper if it was more dangerous and people would willingly pay for such a service if only their governments would butt out.


                  Well, at least you are co
                  • by QuantumG (50515)
                    People know the risks of living in the modern world. If they can't hack it, go live in the freakin' woods or something.

                    Making emotional arguments like that really doesn't befriend you to a geek audience.
          • Hey there chief, you are aware a private pilot's license only requires 40 hours of in-flight time, correct? I myself am training for my private license, have 12 hours of flight time, and have already solo'd (flying minus the instructor). General aviation has an accident rate of about 1 fatality per 100,000 flight hours (much safer then driving) although I agree that the barrier to fly is much higher then driving (which helps the accident rate).
            • by mgv (198488)
              Hey there chief, you are aware a private pilot's license only requires 40 hours of in-flight time, correct? I myself am training for my private license, have 12 hours of flight time, and have already solo'd (flying minus the instructor). General aviation has an accident rate of about 1 fatality per 100,000 flight hours (much safer then driving) although I agree that the barrier to fly is much higher then driving (which helps the accident rate).

              Of course, if everyone was flying around up there, there would b
          • Small airplanes can have 50 mpg economy and do 120 mph. They make sense in open areas like the plains states.

            You would be bitterly opposed to this, which would be fast, economical, safe and fun? You must really hate human beings.

  • Reliability? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mcrbids (148650) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @09:06PM (#18523333) Journal
    One of the biggest problems with smaller aircraft is reliability. Simply put, piston engines are not as reliable as jet engines. They must be rebuilt every 2,000 hours of flight under the best circumstances. And, with smaller planes at slower speeds, jets just don't make sense.

    Turboprop engines are a good middle ground for mid-sized planes starting at the 12-seat size or so, but are very expensive for the smallest aircraft. (2 and 4 seaters)

    Electric motors, other the other hand, can be incredibly reliable. If designed for it, they have just a single moving part, and can run continuously, 24x7x365 for many years without issues. This kind of reliability in a small plane would be just incredible!
    • This kind of reliability in a small plane would be just incredible!

      Just as with cars, power density is the sticking point. And even more than cars, weight is an issue. Taking the standard Cessna 172:
      Fuel capacity of 42 USG.
      Range 790 miles.

      Assuming the gas and electric engines weigh the same, and assuming 6lb per gal for Avgas....can we build a battery pack good enough for 790 mile range, with NO loss of power over that range, that weighs 250lbs?
      (The Prius battery pack weighs about 1/2 that - 45kg))
      • Re:Reliability? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by ppanon (16583) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @10:27PM (#18523957) Homepage Journal
        can we build a battery pack good enough for 790 mile range, with NO loss of power over that range, that weighs 250lbs?

        No, but that may be why they're looking at fuel cells which have different performance characteristics than battery packs.

        My guess is that they really want to use it for military/police UAVs where getting rid of the noise from a combustion engine will seriously improve stealth operation modes. Smaller surveillance-oriented versions could perhaps be dropped from a mother ship and have smaller range requirements than you indicate.
      • by GooberToo (74388)
        I hate to be pedantic, but a range of around 430 miles seems much more realistic for a 172 on 42 gallons. I don't have a 172 POH here but if you really pull the throttle back to get extra range, chances are it will be faster and cheaper to simply drive unless you have a heck of a tail wind.

        Feel free to cross check what I'm saying at this website [risingup.com].
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      The Moller Skycar uses rotary (Wankel) engines. One main moving part (rotor) each. It uses 8 of them, 2 in each of 4 rotating pods. It can lose at least 3 engines and still maintain stable flight (after that it depends on which you lose). There is also a parachute for the entire vehicle as a last resort.

      The Wankel engines are much smaller and lighter for the same horsepower than piston engines. Their drawback for automobiles is similar to turbines - they don't like low RPMS (the rotor seals leak at l

    • by mpe (36238)
      Electric motors, other the other hand, can be incredibly reliable. If designed for it, they have just a single moving part, and can run continuously, 24x7x365 for many years without issues. This kind of reliability in a small plane would be just incredible!

      Electric motors still need to get their power from somewhere batteries arn't that good for storing large amounts of energy nor are fuel cells that good in the 10-100's kW range. You'd probably be better off with an internal combustion engine driving a g
    • There seems to be very little innovation in light plane engines. I'd like to see engines that run on E85 or even even pure stuff. You mention it and people get all bent out of shape about water in their gas, but nobody tries to actually solve the problem - which I hear is not bad at higher alcohol concentrations. They moan if anyone suggests getting the lead out of their precious 100LL too. Oh we need the octane for our dinosaur engines with no electronic controls... BTW E85 has a similar octane rating as 1
  • Bah. (Score:5, Funny)

    by rackhamh (217889) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @09:06PM (#18523343)
    Their heads are in the clouds on this one. This project will never fly. I bet it stalls and they never get it off the ground. It simply flies in the face of reason. That said, the sky's the limit when it comes to technological fantasy.
    • I bet it stalls and they never get it off the ground.
      Technically if it stalls it's already off the ground. You might have meant that it stalls and crashes and burns.

      Don't cross the road if you can't get out of the kitchen. And remember - a penny saved is worth two in the bush.
  • But there just aren't good places to park all those cubic meters of helium each of our blimp-cars would need.

    So, engine noise and laminar flow ducted fans? However you do it, flight needs a lot of power and it's going to get all that power to be smooth and quiet.
    • But there just aren't good places to park all those cubic meters of helium each of our blimp-cars would need.

      Pump the helium (or hydrogen - that wasn't what started the fire on the Hindenber, although it certainly made it worse once it ignited) into tanks to descend. Release it into the gas bag to ascend. Pump it all into your tanks and fold up your envelope to park. Submarines do something like this with air.

  • Ultralights (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MobyDisk (75490) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @09:39PM (#18523583) Homepage
    I know nothing about engines, so can someone answer some basic questions for me? Wouldn't a fuel-cell engine be essentially an electric engine? Would it be quieter than a gasoline engine? More reliable? Would there be any odor? If so, they would be ideal for ultralights:

    I am a hang glider pilot, and I would love to have a small engine for it. There are several manufacturers [doodlebugnorthwest.com] who make small engines [swedishaerosport.se] for them, they are loud, stinky, gasoline engines. Most of them only hold 1-2 gallons of fuel, which is plenty for this type of flight. Wouldn't a fuel-cell engine do the trick?
    • they are loud, stinky, gasoline engines.

      An awful lot of that noise is the prop, not the actual engine.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by myrdos2 (989497)
      Wouldn't a fuel-cell engine be essentially an electric engine?

      -Yes, the fuel cell takes in hyrodgen and outputs electricity, which runs an electric motor.

      Would it be quieter than a gasoline engine? More reliable?

      Yes, and yes. Electric engines are virtually silent, and have far less moving parts than internal combustion engines.

      Would there be any odor?

      No, the only output from a fuel cell is water vapour.

      If so, they would be ideal for ultralights:

      Maybe! Your main problem here is fuel density. On the one hand,
    • by jdray (645332)
      I think the important question is, "Given a (two stroke) gas engine and full (two gallon) fuel tank, what would the power of a fuel cell/electric motor system be for the same amount of runtime?" I think the answer is "Not much." Two stroke (noisy, stinky) gas engines are very good at converting fuel into mechanical power. You just pay for it in environmental damage, not only in noise and smell, but in toxicity.
  • Heck, I'll be happy if we can get the regular version of mr. Moller's skycar.
  • by M0b1u5 (569472) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @09:43PM (#18523621) Homepage
    It's not the engines which are noisy on Moller's ultra-dangerous thing (I refuse to dignify it with the title "car" or "aircraft" as it is neither) it's the fans/propellers which make all the noise. You simply can't move lots of air without making a hell of a racket.

    See: Overclocked PCs, Helicopters, Jet Engine, extractor fan, air conditioner, Vacuum cleaner...

    It wouldn't matter if Moller's thing had fuel cells - it would just as noisy.
    • See: Overclocked PCs, Helicopters, Jet Engine, extractor fan, air conditioner, Vacuum cleaner...

      None of these applications have blades that are acoustically optimized either with the exception of some CPU HS Fans and military copters.

      I wouldn't put it out of the realm of possibility that the Moller's "thing" could be engineered to be more quite.
      • by M0b1u5 (569472) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @12:05AM (#18524595) Homepage
        Acoustic optimisation can onyl get you so far. In other words, you reduce fans/propellors from "an ear damaging roar" to simply "extremely fucking loud". There's only so much you can do to quieten fans;

        You can get cute and use TMD (Tip Magnetic Drive) fan blades, which have no ends (its thought that tip vortex at the end of fan blades is responsible for much of the noise associated with fans and blades) and you could spend millions designing the most efficient blades possible.

        Hell, you could even bet that in a few years the next generation of memetic polyalloys (T1000 et al) or "memory metals" will even allow the actual blades to change shape depending on their rotational speed, thus reducing noise still further.

        But the fact remains, on a 2000 KG car, you need at least 2000 KG of vertical thrust to keep it in the air, and 2000 KG of thrust is a LOT. Are you seriously suggesting that fan blades can be made as quiet as say - a 5-litre V8 car at 6000 rpms? No way. Not gonna happen. Not ever.

        Unless some way can be made to shift large amounts of air, efficiently, with no blades at all, then the Moller thing will never be anything more than a fucking dangerous, extremely noisy experimental demonstrator.

        I'm still hanging out for effective anti-gravity. After all, it's such a weak force, that 2 AA batteries should be powerful enough to keep your car airborn for a year or so. Then all you need is some way to move it about, and you only need one engine for that - so it'd be much quieter.
        • by mpe (36238)
          But the fact remains, on a 2000 KG car, you need at least 2000 KG of vertical thrust to keep it in the air, and 2000 KG of thrust is a LOT.

          That's 20,000kN just to keep it in the air. You need more than that to get it into the air in the first place. You also need a decent amount of thrust to be able to go anywhere, possibly make that thrust vectored so you can use it to either climb or move in the horizontal plain.
          There is also the problem that if you lose your lift thrust you are likely to crash. A parac
        • Gliders are relatively quiet, and their wings are still providing lift. The aircar problem is that the total lift area is small and compact, so that it requires a great air velocity change to get adequate lift. Making the big velocity change causes noise.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by uradu (10768)
      Actually, it's not the movement of air as much as you think. With all the "noisy air mover" examples you listed, the majority of the noise comes from the bearings in the electric motors and whatever they drive. Disconnect the belt in your vacuum and see if it gets much quieter--it most likely won't. Check out noisy power tools such as table saws and routers, it's almost always the bearings making all the racket. With PCs you can really notice that when the bearings in a fan go bad--the low noise that was al
  • Electric Aircraft (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sloppy (14984) on Wednesday March 28, 2007 @10:23PM (#18523927) Homepage Journal
    Huh. Haven't heard of that before. That's pretty unusual, no?
  • Soon, the complete idiots who build their homes next to airports and then complain about all the noise will have another thing to whine about.
    • by mpe (36238)
      Soon, the complete idiots who build their homes next to airports and then complain about all the noise will have another thing to whine about.

      A pity Boeing can't build an aircraft that runs on hot air :)
  • by Animats (122034) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @12:48AM (#18524805) Homepage

    Battery energy density is finally getting good enough for this sort of thing. Electric cars with real performance are at last possible, although the trunk full of laptop batteries still costs too much.

    For aircraft, the price point is higher, so this could work. There are lots of little electric-powered unmanned aircraft around, from toys to small military recon units. An outfit called Aviation Tomorrow [archive.org] was making noise about an electric-powered kitplane back in 2002-2005. They got to the point where they'd announced the first flight test in 2005, then disappeared. What seems to have gone wrong is that they originally planned a battery powered plane, which would have worked, then switched to hydrogen and Ballard fuel cells, which didn't.

    The embarrassing fact about the fuel cell industry is that almost nobody is shipping a usable product. It's still all prototypes. Five years ago, Ballard was about to launch a commercial product with Coleman, but they couldn't make it work well, and Coleman backed out. APC supposedly sells a fuel cell product for server backup power, but it doesn't really seem to be installed in any quantity. (For one thing, it requires chilled water for cooling, which is a real problem if you need power to chill the water.)

  • "demonstrations like this help pave the way for potentially using this technology in small manned and unmanned air vehicles."

    That means "weapons", folks.
  • Although not for short haul flights, a nuclear powered airplane for long flights would be useful. The U.S. Air force and the Russian Air Force both experimented and had plans for nuclear powered bombers as way back as the 50's.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_aircraft [wikipedia.org]

    The new AirBus A380 and similar craft (maybe even the old 747) could easily have a small nuclear reactor onboard.

    Of course I'm talking purely technical. The politics of flying nuclear powered aircraft over populated areas I'm sure would be
  • This is not new territory for Boeing. They've had a solid oxide fuel cell APU in the works for several years, and its doing rather well. I did some aircraft design work involving the integration of the Boeing SOFC APU. As of 2005, the best fuel efficiency is 75%, which when considering a 18,500 BTU/lb heat content of Jet-A, works out to about 0.246 lb/hr/kW. Much better than the 40-45% efficiency than the engine generator can deliver. The worst cruise fuel efficiency for the fuel cell APU was 59%. The
  • I can't remember which magazine it was that had an article on this in the last issue, but the author ran the number on what it would take to put an electric plane in the air. From his numbers, using current technology, it would be possible, but you'd basically turn a 2-place airplane into a single place, or give up all cargo capacity.

    One of the biggest advantages of the ICE is that a large portion of the combustion inputs is not carried by the airplane. The necessary oxygen surrounds the craft, and is pul

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