A Milestone in Aviation
LAST spring a Soviet airliner roared aloft from a Moscow-area airport to become the first commercial airliner to be powered by hydrogen rather than by petroleum-based jet fuel. Although the event was given little publicity in the Western world, some considered it historic. One U.S. congressman compared it to the launching of Sputnik in 1957.
“Once again we’ve missed the boat,” he noted, “and we can only hope that the next administration will be more interested in hydrogen than this one has been.”
When petroleum-based fuels are burned, dangerous pollutants are produced. In fact, the carbon dioxide gas that is expelled contributes to the global “greenhouse effect,” and this could have disastrous consequences to life during the next century. On the other hand, the combustion product of a plane powered by hydrogen is harmless steam, and thus the Soviet plane’s engine was called “absolutely ecologically pure.”
The airliner was equipped with a special fuel tank that held liquid hydrogen at a temperature below minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit [-253° C.]. As the liquid was warmed, it was ducted to the engine and burned with intense heat, producing a powerful thrust. But since the fuel is violently combustible, it poses a potential danger, as illustrated by the explosion of the hydrogen-powered space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
The United States is developing an aircraft powered by hydrogen that will be capable of flying both in outer space and within the atmosphere. It has been dubbed the Orient Express, since it could theoretically fly from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo in two hours. Its first flight is scheduled for 1994.
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