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First hydrogen-powered plane takes to the skies in Germany

The German Aerospace Center (aka DLR) Tuesday demonstrated the world's first hydrogen fuel cell only powered airplane, which took off, flew and then landed in Stuttgart, Germany. This was the first time such an aircraft was able to take off using the energy from fuel cells.

The single-prop Antares DLR-H2 glider (developed by DLR and Lange Aviation GmbH) was powered by a BASF high-temperature polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which fed its electrical output to the battery pack that turned the electric motor of the propeller. Two external pods that house the fuel cell system and the hydrogen tanks ride beneath the glider's wings. The PEM fuel cell—which operates at 248 to 356 degrees Fahrenheit (120 to 180 degrees Celsius)—is designed to efficiently burn hydrogen less pure than that needed by lower-temperature fuel cells.

Hydrogen fuel cells may one day replace convention jet engines. But hydrogen-power advocates say there is a lot more work to be done before that happens. "Just because a single-manned, single-propped fuel cell airplane is able to takeoff and land safely, does not mean that anytime soon a jumbo jet passenger plane will be doing the same,"  says "Hydro" Kevin Kantola, a California technical writer and environmentalist, on his Hydrogen Cars & Vehicles blog. "A more likely scenario aboard larger planes is that fuel cells will be used to power auxiliary onboard systems."

The German Aerospace Center concedes that fuel cells are not expected to become primary propulsive energy sources for passenger aircraft  any time soon. Its goal: to develop fuel cells that can be used to supplement on-board power supplies on commercial flights. The DLR has already implemented a fuel cell system used as the auxiliary power supply for the hydraulic pumps of an Airbus Germany A320 ATRA research aircraft.

The Antares's flight is an auspicious sign for the U.S. economy. A U.S. Department of Energy study released this week predicts that commercializing fuel cells and shifting from gasoline to hydrogen could generate 675,000 new jobs in manufacturing, assembly, fuel production, repair, recycling, construction, and at auto shops and dealerships nationwide over the next 25 years. Of course, the countries that commercialize fuel cell technology first stand to gain the most.

(Images courtesy of the German Aerospace Center)

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