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On a Wing and a Fuel Cell

By Vicki Sanders

A century after the Wright brothers first achieved powered flight, Jim Dunn '67 is hoping to teach the airplane a new trick.

At just 346 pounds, the all-carbon DynAero Lafayette III is a lightweight among airplanes, but it's about to carry aloft a weighty dream. Soon the plane will take a critical step toward becoming the first piloted plane to be powered by fuel cells. The event will be an important milestone in the yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight.

"One reason we're doing this is that everyone thought it would be impossible," says James P. Dunn '67, president of Advanced Technology Products Inc. (ATP) of Worcester, the corporate entity behind the plane, and executive director of the Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology Education (FASTec), the project's nonprofit arm. The alternative energy expert and experimental pilot is also the chief executive officer of the Center for Technology Commercialization, his "day job."

A tall, energetic man who loves a good challenge ("Who'd want one of those?" his detractors asked in 1981 when he invented the first battery-powered laptop computer), Dunn has used his powers of persuasion to engage a number of partners in the creation of the e-plane. They include WPI's Fuel Cell Center, NASA, American Ghiles Aircraft Inc., Giner Electrochemical Systems, Analytic Energy, Lithium Technology Corp., Diamond Aircraft and W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc., along with a band of more than 100 volunteer professionals, WPI alumni and aviation enthusiasts. WPI students working on their required projects are also participating.

Dunn is developing the plane in three phases:

Recent advances in fuel cell technology, the development of lighter and more powerful electric motors, and new lithium-ion batteries that are six times more powerful per pound than lead-cell batteries, are among the reasons the e-plane is viable today, Dunn says. Another is the growing demand for sustainable energy.

Attached to the nose of the DynAero Lafayette III is the electric drive that may propel the plane into aviation history. From left are WPI's Bill Durgin, test pilot Hoot Gibson and Jim Dunn.

Fuel cells are sustainable and essentially emission-free, but also expensive, requiring platinum and other precious metals to build. On a per-kilowatt basis, Dunn calculates, fuel cells cost 10 to 50 times as much as internal combustion engines, one reason it may be another decade before the cells are commonly used in general aviation aircraft (even longer for commercial planes).

The more immediate concerns for ATP's e-plane--and this is where WPI's Fuel Cell Center comes in--are how to provide a fuel cell sized to the plane's requirements and how to generate and store the hydrogen. Earlier this year, ATP received a $100,000 NASA grant, $10,000 of which went to the Fuel Cell Center to investigate these issues.

Hydrogen is customarily stored under pressure in metal bottles or at low temperatures in Dewar flasks. For space and weight reasons, neither setup is workable in a small aircraft, so the WPI researchers are looking for ways to produce hydrogen on board. One option is to start with liquid hydrocarbons, which can be reformed into hydrogen during flight. Another possibility is to break down ammonia, which has three hydrogen atoms per molecule.

The project is important to WPI because it engages students in leading-edge research, says Associate Provost William W. Durgin. "Fuel cells have been around for a long time, but nobody has tried this application before. It's very challenging."

Despite an airport security clampdown after Sept. 11, 2001, that prevented his crew from entering the plane's hangar for several months, setting the project back, Dunn remains enthusiastic and has continued to attract backers who've donated everything from the aircraft itself to fuel cell analysis to batteries. He says he still needs at least $500,000 to complete the project.

As word of the e-plane has spread, the project has won the respect of a widening circle. In September, Aviation Week bestowed on ATP its Outstanding Technical Innovation Award. The three volunteer test pilots are aerospace heavyweights. International air racer Robert "Hoot" Gibson, the first American astronaut on the Mir space station and former head of the Navy's "Top Gun" school, is the chief test pilot. He is joined by aerobatics champion and former Naval aviator Wayne Handley and Formula One air racer and Exxon Flying Tiger pilot Bruce Bohannon.

Scientific American reports that "the connections Dunn has made for system and component elements within the fuel cell industry represent as much of a Who's Who as his test pilots. Also on the team are Paul MacCready, CEO of AeroVironment Corp., the company developing the Helios unpiloted flying wing, and Jay Carter Jr., developer of the revolutionary CarterCopter gyroplane."

For Dunn, who washed and waxed planes at the Worcester airport during his student years at WPI to earn flying time, loyalties run deep. He is a co-founder of the WPI Venture Forum. His alumni colleagues at ATP include Peter T. Launie '01, who tackled the problem of how much weight, including batteries and fuel cells, the DynAero could bear, and Brian Klinka '81, who is managing sponsorships and volunteer coordination.

Dunn says he hopes that his e-plane will lay the foundation for further innovations. "If we can make a fuel cell work on an airplane, if we can solve the hydrogen generation problems and demonstrate that it's a sustainable and renewable fuel," he says, "we can get people excited about the future and being independent of a petroleum-based economy."

Vicki Sanders is a free-lance writer and editor who lives in Brookline, Mass.

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 12:29 EDT
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