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SOFC company wins Boeing/DARPA contract to supply energy storage and generation technology for ultra-long endurance aircraft

30 November 2010

Versa Power Systems, Inc., a developer of high-power solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), has been selected as one of the key suppliers to The Boeing Co. under the next phase of a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program to develop and fly a very long endurance unmanned aircraft. (Earlier post.)

The technology will enable an aircraft to remain on station at stratospheric altitudes for at least five years, will perform persistent communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions from altitudes above 60,000 feet. In the project, DARPA’s Vulture program, Boeing pairs Versa Power’s specialized solid state SOFC technology with solar equipment that together serve as the aircraft’s on-board source of electricity. Combining a fuel cell with solar power provides continuous energy, making long-term propulsion and flight operations possible.

During the project’s next phase, Versa Power will engineer and scale up its technology for an SOFC-based energy storage and power generation system to be incorporated in a demonstrator version of the SolarEagle, Boeing’s name for the demonstrator aircraft. It is slated to remain aloft in the upper atmosphere for a minimum of 30 days.

Versa Power’s work to adapt its SOFC fuel cell designs was funded in part under a US Department of Energy initiative to hasten introduction of green technologies enabling solar and wind installations (renewable but intermittent sources of electricity) to produce energy on a continuous basis.

November 30, 2010 in Brief | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

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SOFC + Solar cells may be the most effective way to do it now, but in a few more years, much higher performance solar cells + advanced ultra high energy density e-energy storage units will take over. By then, such craft (in many different size and shape) will be able to stay airborne 24/7 for years.

@HarveyD,

This very project is described as allowing a craft to stay airborne for years. I believe what they are doing is reversing the fuel through the SOFC during recharge so they reform the fuel each day in a closed loop. I'm sure they will use very efficient triple junction PV for a system such as this. I doubt such craft will have many different shapes however. Your basic glider (think U2 spy plane)operates best at high altitude. They might have twin fuselages alla the White Knight of Virgin Galactic, depending on how much interior volume they need for systems and instruments, but that's about it.

Interesting project. Perhaps they need the altitude to maximize the sunlight & stay away from hostile anti-air missiles, but you'd think something at 60,000 feet could still be taken down by some kind of elaborate stinger missile or something along those lines. If it would be designed to fly a geosynchronous route, it is obviously going to need enough energy storage to maintain lift and stay aloft for 12 hours of darkness to get to 12 hours of light again. The good news is that there is no space junk at 60,000 feet to worry about.

Geosynchronous? Have you calculated the speed such an aircraft would have to maintain to remain in sunlight 24/7... and looked at how many different jurisdictions of airspace it would go through?

Both physically and legally impossible.

Mr. Engineer-Poet: I'm not a physicist but geosynchronous actually means over the same spot all the time (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/geosynchronous) and 60,000 feet is different than ~20,000 miles given in the definition. Let's say the aircraft needs to stay stationary over an Iran nuke site 24/7, for a few months straight --- it would be in a geosynchronous (almost anyway) flight at 60,000 feet or it would be blown around and constantly circling, while the earth rotated and it endured ~12 hours light ~12 hours darkness. Am I wrong?

Sorry, I was thinking something else. Can I blame it on lack of caffeine?

Using sunlight to make NH3 from tropospheric water could be one approach. They would likely employ a Haber-Bosch process to make a nitrogen-based fuel with higher energy density and greater specific gravity than carbon fuel.

Continuous electrical energy would allow for sophisticated radiative defense against incoming hostiles.

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