Helite unveils ultralight aircraft powered by fuel cell alone

An ultralight aircraft that is propelled exclusively by hydrogen energy, without supplementary power supplied by batteries, was on show in Friedrichshafen, Germany at the recent ‘e-Flight Expo 2009’ – a new part of the annual AERO International Aviation Trade Show that is dedicated to environmentally friendly flight.

Developed by French company Helite, the fuel cell-based, one-seater ultralight trike is equipped with a 7 kW hydrogen propulsion system and weighs only 55 kg, with a 5 liter hydrogen tank. The wing, which resembles the ones used on hang-gliders, has an area of less than 14 m2, a span of 12 m, and weighs 35 kg.

Fuel consumption during the propulsion trial at 100 m above sea level was measured at 550 g per flying hour on average, with only steam being emitted into the atmosphere.

In April 2008, Boeing surprised the world with a 20-minute maiden flight of a power glider powered by a fuel cell. While Boeing’s first manned hydrogen-powered experimental aircraft relied on additional energy from an auxiliary battery for take-off and landing, Helite’s aircraft is capable of flying without battery assistance.

‘Unlike the Boeing project, our hydrogen-powered plane is an extremely light aircraft, weighing less than 160 kg including the pilot,’ explains Helite’s Gérard Thevenot. ‘This enables us to fly for the first time using only a fuel cell and without any auxiliary batteries – a world first.’

The Helite ultralight was not the only fuel cell aircraft at the exhibition. Two other aviation projects from Germany and Italy demonstrated the feasibility of hydrogen propulsion.

The University of Stuttgart presented details of its Hydrogenius project at the e-Flight Expo show. This is a two-seater ultralight power glider made of fiber-strengthened synthetic material. It is based on a series production aircraft made by Pipistrel, an aircraft manufacturer based in Slovakia, and has a wing span of 18 m. The aircraft is equipped with a 60 kW hydrogen propulsion system located in its tail unit.

And the Politecnico di Torino presented its SkySpark fuel cell project, whose first flight is also scheduled for 2009. Its propulsion system, which runs on hydrogen, has a power output of 62 kW and weighs 30 kg. The aircraft is based on the Pioneer high-performance ultralight aircraft, made by Italian manufacturer Alpi Aviation.

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