Fuel cells

Hydrogen comes closer to ousting fossil fuels

Astrid Dähn, 15 Dec 16
Travelling by air and rail could be about to become much cleaner. The world’s first four-seater passenger plane powered by hydrogen rather than fossil fuels has recently completed its maiden flight at Stuttgart airport.

The HY4, jointly developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the University of Ulm and several industry partners, consists of two two-seater cabins joined together by the aircraft’s wing. The core component of the drive system is a low-temperature fuel cell which converts chemical energy stored in the hydrogen into electricity, powering an electric motor which drives the plane’s propeller. During take-off and climbing, additional energy is provided by a lithium-ion battery. Depending on speed, altitude and load the HY4 can cover between 750 and 1,500 km on a single tank of hydrogen, at a maximum speed of 200 km/h. The aircraft is currently still in testing, but small passenger planes like the HY4 could soon be used in regional transport as “electric air taxis”, says Josef Kallo, the project’s coordinator at DLR.

Even greater inroads have been made by hydrogen in rail-based transport: French train manufacturer Alstom recently unveiled the first production-ready passenger train to run on hydrogen and fuel cells at the Innotrans trade fair. The Coradia iLint has a range of 600 to 800 km. Thanks to EUR 8 million in funding from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Transport, two prototypes of the hydrogen train will begin ferrying passengers between Bremerhaven, Buxtehude and Cuxhaven on a trial basis as soon as next year. If the technology proves successful, a total of 14 hydrogen-powered trains will be added to Lower Saxony’s regional transport network in 2020. Initially, Alstom plans to obtain the hydrogen from chemical plants, where it would otherwise be burnt off as waste gas. In the medium term, Lower Saxony’s transport ministry hopes to generate the fuel from surplus wind energy by electrolysis.

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