Pipistrel's HY4 First Flight - Is Hydrogen Fuel Cell Aviation Becoming Practical?

A Pipistrel aircraft recently completed its first flight at the Stuttgart airport. Why is this cool? It's the world's first 4-seat aircraft powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The aircraft is part of the HY4 Project that aims to build a fleet of these aircraft and start a network of clean, efficient air taxis.

Electric aviation is gaining popularity, but it has some drawbacks. Batteries are heavy and ecologically problematic. They can take a long time to recharge. They've even been known to catch fire in products ranging from Boeing's 787 Dreamliner to the Samsung Galaxy S7 Note. Hydrogen fuel cells are advantageous because they don't involve any carbon...their fuel (pure hydrogen gas) can be produced with just sunshine and water. The power generating reaction requires no moving parts, it's silent, and the only thing that comes out of the tail pipe is pure water.

We've been trying to make this technology practical for aviation for a long time. We reported about Boeing's first fuel cell aircraft about either years ago. The Antares DLR-H2 improved on the idea, but isn't especially practical as an enormous single-seat motorglider.

Pipistrel is not new to the Green Aviation movement. They cleaned up in a series of NASA's annual CAFE contests, winning numerous awards for efficient aircraft. They must have been an easy choice for the HY4 project. The HY4 aircraft has a unique design that's perfect for this application. The twin fuselages provide lots of room for large hydrogen tanks, meaning the aircraft has a range of up to 800 nm! The central engine nacelle allows room for the aircraft's four fuel cell modules used during cruise. A battery provides extra power available for takeoff and climb. The first flight was a short 15-minute demo, but for a good reason. The airport stopped all other traffic so that spectators could listen to the nearly silent flight of this revolutionary electric aircraft. For more about the design/technology of this aircraft, check out this cool video by the HY4 Project:

Fuel cell technology has lagged batteries, but I believe it has the potential to revolutionize light aircraft (not to mention cars, boats, other small consumer vehicles and home power generation/storage.) Congratulations to Pipistrel and the HY4 Project! I think we're going to hear a lot more about fuel cell-powered aircraft in the years to come.