The world’s first crewed aircraft powered by fuel cells could be ready for test flights by December 2003.

The experimental one-person craft, being built by US aerospace company Boeing, will rely entirely on two 25-kilowatt fuel cells for propulsion once airborne. The fuel cells will provide electrical power for propeller motors. However, the aircraft will need to use batteries to accelerate to the required speed during take off.

“If there was ever a way to demonstrate that fuel cells are safe and usable, this is it,” says Judith Agar of Intelligent Energy, the UK company chosen by Boeing to build the fuel cells. “But it’s essentially a modified glider, so it could glide back to the ground if the propulsion fails.”

Fuel cells use a chemical reaction to generate electricity from hydrogen and oxygen and the only by-products of the process are heat and water. The cells are considered a long-term alternative to the internal combustion engine, which produces greenhouse gases in its exhaust fumes.

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