Scientists in the UK have successfully tested a drone powered exclusively by hydrogen, with water vapour the only gas emitted during the flight.
The experimental drone was built in partnership with UK technology company Cella and researchers at the department of Marine Technology in the Scottish Association for Marine Science. The small plane runs on hydrogen pellets made with a chemical compound to produce a steady stream of hydrogen. While on-board the gas is converted into electricity via the fuel cell that runs the drone’s propeller. This fuel system is three times lighter than your everyday lithium battery, meaning that as well as being a potentially pioneering technology which could make commercial aircraft cleaner in the future, flight time is extended too.
Phil Anderson, head of Marine Technology at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, said “the idea was simple: stick solid state hydrogen fuel into a drone and fly it – but it’s tricky to do”.
Hydrogen as a fuel source is yet to really take off, mainly because of the dangers and difficulties with storing the gas so that it's ready for use. Large tanks of liquid hydrogen kept at super-low temperatures have proven too large to be practical, while storing it as a pressurised gas is also inefficient.
This new pellet-based fuel system could signal a return to the scene for hydrogen powered aircraft though, and only this week Airline EasyJet has announced plans to build hybrid planes to save on fuel costs. Before Christmas another UK-based company, Intelligent Energy, released details of hydrogen fuel cells which they say can lengthen the flight time of commercial drones by up to two hours.