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ENFICA-FC Fuel Cell-Powered Aircraft Setting Speed and Endurance Records; Solar Impulse HB-SIA Achieves First Night Flight

A hydrogen fuel cell-powered aircraft developed by the ENFICA-FC project has completed a number of successful test flights out of Reggio Emilia airport in Italy, establishing new speed and endurance records for electrically powered class C aeroplanes. (Earlier post.)

Separately, the Solar Impulse HB-SIA (earlier post) completed a full day and night flight on solar energy—the longest and highest in the history of solar aviation, as well as the first night flight solely on solar energy.

ENFICA-FC. The goal of the ENFICA-FC project, including ten partners from across the EU, has been to demonstrate manned flight in an electric aircraft using fuel cells as a main power supply. Over three years, it has worked to design, develop and install a fuel cell-based power system in a Czech-built ultra-light aircraft.

The aircraft, called Rapid 200-FC, completed its maiden flight on 20 May 2010, using a completely electrical hybrid power system, comprising a 20 kW PEM fuel cell and a 20 kW Li-Po battery. Test Pilot Marco Locatelli carried out a first aero-mechanical take off, followed by an eleven-minute test flight for investigations of the flight envelope.

Level flight was attained at 700 ft and 130 km/h (70 knots) on a partial fuel cell power setting. Further flight tests were carried out on 26 and 27 May 2010, during which RAPID 200-FC established a new world speed record of 135 km/h (73 knots) for electrically powered class C aeroplanes (four consecutive runs over a 3 km course, as per FAI Sporting Code).

According to Locatelli, the aircraft showed positive handling qualities and satisfactory engine performance. Higher speeds of 145-150 km/h (78-81 knots) were measured for tens of seconds during free flight. The plane also broke the endurance record of 45 minutes.

ENFICA-FC project coordinator Giulio Romeo of the Politecnico di Torino says RAPID 200 FC is one of the first aeroplanes in Europe and in the world to be fuelled by hydrogen. Project partners consider its successful first flights as a major step forward in the introduction of clean energy in aeronautics.

European Commission officials say the ability of low-noise electrically powered commuter airplanes to take off and land on airfields with strict noise abatement regulations in urban areas and near population centres will allow the use of these airfields late at night, when noise abatement regulations are more stringent. This, in turn, will contribute to the more efficient and sustainable use of the aviation system capacity.

The European Union is a strong supporter of research towards more-electric and all-electric aircraft. The primary advantages of electric technologies in aviation include low emissions and low noise, particularly important for commuter airplanes that usually take off and land in urban areas.

Other advantages include lower chance of mechanical failure, such as that caused by volcanic ash, and lower risk of explosion or fire in the event of a collision. The main disadvantages of electric aircraft have been decreased range and weight penalties.

HB-SIA. A total of 11,628 monocrystalline silicon cells (10,748 on the upper wing surface, 880 on the horizontal stabilizer), each 150 microns thick, run four 7.5 kW (10 hp) electric motors and store the solar energy for the night in a 400 kg lithium-ion polymer battery system (25% of the weight of the plane). Each motor is mounted in a gondola beneath the wing which also contains a lithium polymer battery set and a management system controlling charge/discharge and temperature.

The flight lasted 26 hours and nine minutes. Maximum speed was 68 knots (125 km/h), with an average speed of 23 knots (42.6 km/h). Maximum altitude was 8,564 meters (28,000 feet).

The success of this first night flight by a solar-powered plane is crucial for the further course of the project, Solar Impulse said. Now that the HB-SIA’s ability to remain flying at night using solar energy stored during the day has been proved, the next important milestones for Solar Impulse will be an Atlantic crossing and an around the world flight, using a second prototype which goes into construction this summer.

Comments

HarveyD

A cross Atlantic flight at 23 to 68 knots may only be possible with tail wind or very low wind. Westward flights (against the jet stream) will be a challenge. Eastward cross Atlantic flights would be easier but reduced sunlight hours may be a problem. A compromise between those two opposite factors should exist.

Improved lighter solar cells with 2x to 3x conversion capability + improved batteries with 2x to 3x the energy density could power the next e-airplane generation for higher speed and increased payloads.

Interesting future for light planes + training and other usages such as military observation 24/7 flights etc

HealthyBreeze

While it sounds like there is a lot of great engineering in this, let's keep in mind the tradeoffs and how it was accomplished.

The plane is essentially a MASSIVE glider that never exceeded 78 mph. It used the sunlight to climb to ~26,000 feet altitude, and then essentially glided all night. Although it has batteries, most of its energy was stored as potential energy. It is cool, but it would take about 480 hours to circumnavigate the globe.

Eletruk

So the fuel cell plane set and endurance record of 45 minutes, yet the solar powered plane just completed 26 hours of flight? Fuel cell not inspiring me much.

luis

great news
solar power is getting better for days
in a cuple of years will take passengers

HarveyD

Lets not get carried away. This is similar to (but much better) than Wrights Bros first flight. ICE powered airplanes went, in the last 100 years, from a few seconds flying time at 60 Kph to current jumbos with 20+ hours flying time at 1000+ Kph and military fighters at 3000 + Kph etc. Electrified airplanes will also do much better by 2110+ but it will be difficult to beat 24/7 endurance.

Roger Pham

In the future, when H2 can be stored in adsorptive materials at low pressures at 14% H2 weight percentage, fuel-cell powered plane using light-weight higher-temp FC will have the same range as current piston-powered aircraft. The current FC technology is still in its infancy and experimental status.

Considering that solar powered cars have little utility, this kind of 24/7 solar powered plane will have great utility for the military as reconnaissance, command and relay post, capable of cruising above 100,000 feet altitude, hence is out of the weather system and is out of range of most anti-aircraft missiles. At these outer-atmospheric altitudes, the plane can cruise at over 100 mph and still consumes little power. Built from stealthy, radar-wave absorptive materials or reflective materials, and at these altitudes, these planes can be very hard to detect. Electric-powered planes have signifcant advantage over ICE-powered planes at high altitudes where the air is so thin that ICE's lose most of their power, while electric motors could not care less!

Wait until 40%-efficient solar panel will be available...then higher speeds will be available for long-distance global cruising for deployment anywhere world-wide where they will be needed, either temporarily, or permanently. These planes can take many roles in telecommunication that now require very expensive satellites.

Mannstein

How about a solar powered Zeppelin. Lighter than air vehicles have plenty of surface area for solar panels to harvest the sun's energy.

ai_vin

Damn it Mannstein, I wanted to suggest that.

HarveyD

Roger: I fully agree with you that with improved (FC + Solar cells + higher energy density batteries) electrified airplanes may have a bright future in many applications, including passengers, in the not too distant future. Some kind of power launcher could help them to take off with heavier loads. Miniature stealth versions could be very useful to track terrorist activities and guide predators to their target etc.

Mannstein: Yes, electrified lighter than air machines could operate 24/7 and carry very large payloads for very long distances. Also, excellent cell communication stations/relays + weather observation platforms using nothing but solar energy to stay in place for extended period (could in be in order of years?).

Nat Pearre

"It used the sunlight to climb to ~26,000 feet altitude, and then essentially glided all night."

400kg of batteries was 1/4 of the weight, so the plane weighed 1600 kg. At 9000m altitude, the potential energy would be 1600kg * 9000m * 9m/s2 = 130 million Joules. That would be 36 kWh.
Assuming that the batteries had an energy density of 100 Wh/kg, then they could have contained about 40 kWh, or about as much potential energy as the altitude.

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