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World records for EU-funded fuel cell-powered aircraft

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.

The ENFICA-FC fuel cell-powered aircraft
Successful flights for ENFICA-FC fuel cell-powered aircraft
© Giulio Romeo, POLITO

The European Union is a strong supporter of research towards greener, safer and more efficient air transport systems, including the '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. Until now, the main disadvantages of electric aircraft have been decreased range and weight penalties.

A new aviation milestone

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 20kW 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 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 for electrically powered class C aeroplanes (four consecutive runs over a 3 km course, as per  FAI Sporting Codeexternal link).

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

Good news for aviation and for citizens

ENFICA-FC project coordinator Giulio Romeo of the  Politecnico di Torinoexternal link 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.

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