Last night, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) demonstrated the world’s first manned airplane that can fly exclusively with the use of a fuel cell. The fuel cell, which is based on polymer electrolyte membranes (PEM), generates power for the motor glider’s electric engine.
PEM fuel cells are both simple and safe— they can operate between 120 and 180 C, only need a simple cooling system, don’t require humidification, and and can tolerate hydrogen gas impurities.
While the DLR’s demonstration is promising, its technology requires significantly more testing before it can be used commercially. And when PEM fuel cells are ready for aircraft use, they probably will only be used in small planes.
The DLR isn’t the first organization to test fuel cells for flight— this past April, Boeing flew a plane for 20 minutes on power generated solely by onboard fuel cells. But unlike the DLR’s plane, the Boeing model used lithium-ion batteries for takeoff.
While fuel cells may not be used to power aircraft anytime soon, they could be used in the near future for auxiliary power-generation in small planes.