Boeing is examining the use of fuel cell technology to substitute for batteries as the possible first airborne commercial application of the concept. The company, which has just flown a fuel cell-powered light aircraft, believes that use of the technology in this way could be practical several years before its eventual hoped-for use as a replacement for auxiliary power units (APU).
Boeing Commercial Airplanes managing director environmental strategy Billy Glover told Flight at the Aviation & Environment Summit: "With fuel cells the power density is not there yet [for APUs].
"We are looking to see if there are similar applications that could be ready sooner - for example back-up power systems to replace batteries.
"We want to see what it could do in and around the aircraft - perhaps how to charge ground vehicles."
Boeing Research and Technology Europe (BR&TE), based in Madrid, flew a manned Diamond Aircraft Dimona motor-glider three times in February and March powered by a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, lithium-ion battery hybrid system.
Glover says that the timeline for the development of a new narrowbody aircraft is now such that a fuel cell APU is a candidate technology for the aircraft.
He adds: "We are looking at how much power can you get for a given size and unit. And what you would do with the water that is produced.
"We have been doing CATIA studies on that as well as pushing it along."
Boeing is also exploring military applications that could develop sooner than commercial use.