Boeing has announced that it is developing fuel cell technologies as part of an overall goal of making completely sustainable flight a reality. The company is testing its fuel cells with a specially designed unmanned aerial vehicle.
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Energy from a high-efficiency solar panel is used to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is compressed and stored aboard the aircraft as fuel for the cell, which splits the hydrogen atoms into ions and electrons. The electrons allow an electric current to flow, which powers the aircraft, and later recombine with the ions. The hydrogen is then burnt with oxygen from the air, giving off no emissions other than water.
Fuel cells have a number of advantages as a power source for unmanned aircraft. They produce less noise and vibration than petrol or diesel-powered combustion engines, allowing the aircraft to fly lower and with increased reliability. In addition to producing no emissions, they also have a smaller thermal signature, making them harder to detect.
Boeing’s aim is to produce a completely autonomous flight system for use in remote areas where resources such as fuel and water may be impossible to obtain.