In-flight insight

Boeing is developing technologies to monitor the health of fuel cells during flight as part of its exploration of the technology’s potential for use in future aircraft.

Boeing is developing technologies to monitor the health of fuel cells during flight as part of its exploration of the technology’s potential for use in future aircraft.

The aerospace giant, which recently announced several international partners including the UK’s Intelligent Energy would be taking part in its fuel cell demonstrator project, is working with the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) to develop an integrated health management system for aircraft powered by fuel cells.

The project is designed to develop sensors and artificial intelligence systems to monitor the general state of the cell during flight, and send the information to the ground to allow maintenance staff to carry out repairs, if needed, as soon as the aircraft lands, said Dr. Miguel Hernan, director of the Boeing Technology and Research Centre in Madrid, part of the Phantom Works advanced R&D unit.

‘The project aims to find out the main causes of malfunction of fuel cells in an airborne environment, which variables should be monitored, and what actions should be taken to prevent one parameter going out of limits.’

The researchers will also be developing a model designed to predict fuel cell failure modes, by linking information on the current and likely future health state of the stack with data from the continuous monitoring equipment, he said.

As the system can be used to predict when a part might fail, it will also allow maintenance crews to replace or repair the part in advance during scheduled checks, preventing unnecessary flight delays.

The researchers will investigate the amount of money that could be saved by this continuous monitoring, which is likely to depend on the effectiveness of the system in accurately predicting the future health of the stack, said Hernan. ‘After identifying all possible faults and determining the appropriate counter actions, the monitoring system will be designed and developed, and later integrated with the fuel cell.’

Boeing expects to begin fitting fuel cells into its demonstrator aircraft by the end of the summer, with the first flight tests to be held in late 2004 or early 2005.

While the company does not expect fuel cells to replace jet engines, they could be used instead of the gas turbine auxiliary power units, which provide electricity and air.

But it will be some time before fuel cells are ready for use on commercial aircraft, said Hernan. ‘Fuel cell technology needs further development before being included in commercial aircraft. We do not expect a commercial application for 10-15 years.’

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