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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging Science Note/Hydrogen Plane

Air Date: Week of July 8, 2005

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Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky reports on an experimental airplane using a hydrogen fuel cell that could be a prototype for environmentally friendly air travel.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Just ahead. Where humans are simply an asterisk. The world according to ants. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Eileen Bolinsky.

BOLINSKY: For years, environmentalists have stared up in dismay as trails of pollution spewed from jet planes. It’s estimated that air travel releases more than 600 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, and is responsible for almost 4 percent of all global warming. That figure could quadruple by 2050 as air travel becomes more and more popular. But one California company may have a solution.

Aerovironment’s experimental airplane, dubbed Global Observer, was first flown this spring at the Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. With its lightweight design and long wings, the craft resembles a glider much more than a 747.

But what really distinguishes this plane is hidden away in its mechanical belly. Instead of standard-grade jet fuel, the plane’s tank contains liquid hydrogen, kept at a frigid minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. After the hydrogen is converted back into a gas, it’s combined with oxygen from outside air in a fuel cell. The result is electricity, which is used to power propellers.
Aerovironment says the plane could fly for 24 hours on a single tank of hydrogen.

Many are optimistic about the plane’s potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation. But there’s a hitch: water vapor, which is a byproduct of the fuel cell, is a greenhouse gas in its own right, trapping heat in the same way as carbon dioxide. So scientists will likely research the impact of the vapor as they continue to try to make flying in the sky environmentally friendly. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Eileen Bolinsky.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at mott dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable, and sustainable society; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924, on the web at kresge.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

 

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