Bangalore: Aircraft maker Boeing Co., opened on Tuesday a research and technology centre in Bangalore, only the third such outside the US. With ongoing research collaborations with the National Aerospace Laboratories, the Tata group and the Indian Institute of Science, Boeing expects this centre, which has around 30 scientists to build technologies for future planes, John Tracy, chief technology officer of the company, said in an interview. Edited excerpts:
What will the India research and development unit do for Boeing?
Eco-friendly step: JohnTracy, chief technology officer of Boeing. The company wants to use fuel cells as auxiliary power units in aircraft. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Here we are going to focus on far reaching technologies, that will provide us great leverage for our future products and services in areas (such) as advanced materials, advanced analysis, modelling and simulation...everything from computation fluid dynamics to advanced aluminium alloys, composite materials. And in each of those, we expect the advances that are made will help us to bring products and services to our customers that didn’t exist before.
Is there a timeline for these technologies to become products?
We have talked about horizons 2 and 3—these are technologies that will show up from the time to develop shows up on a product, between three and eight years. Horizon 1 could show up as soon as 12 months for us. Our focus here is the farthest out technologies.
Boeing has said that the first flight of the Dreamliner will take place in the second quarter of this year. Is it on schedule?
I am quite excited. I was in the factory two weeks ago, on airplane 1, 2 and 5, and the progress (that) is being made in the supply chain, in the factory is outstanding. We are picking up momentum. The airplane is going to fly in the second quarter (by June).
Are you working on other new aircraft?
Any new replacement for existing airplanes will be anytime (after) 2015, the last half of the decade. What you will see is that we will continue to make significant investments in the future. (With the) economic challenges now, this (India centre) is an investment in future, which we expect to pay (off) for decades. Other than the 787, all the new airplanes in the next five years will be derivatives of existing planes.
You tested a fuel cell-powered aircraft last year. How long do you think before we can see commercial planes powered by fuel cell technology?
That plane had hydrogen fuel cell. The first application for that is not to power a commercial airplane, (but) will be most likely (an) auxiliary power unit (APU). Right now, when you get on the plane and you hear something—not the engines, but one that keeps the electricals on—that is from the APU. That burns fuel today; we believe that will be replaced by hydrogen fuel cells and we have been studying that. It is advantageous, efficient and when it is producing power, the APU is not burning oil and not putting out carbon dioxide. The purpose (of last year’s flight) was not so much to create (fuel cell-powered) airplane, but help us to understand how you integrate systems with fuel cells; the fact that it can fly is a nice added benefit.
We have solved the technical challenge but then there are certification issues and issues like how do you safely store hydrogen in an environment (where there is fuel). My guess is it will take at least five years for it (to be commercially available).
Boeing has been testing biofuels for sometime. When will we see planes flying with a reasonable amount of biofuel commercially?
We have tested four different fuels with four airlines, two engine companies and three different models. We are really doing a lot in alternative fuel area. The main reason is the total life cycle of carbon dioxide. Lot of the feedstock absorb carbon dioxide, but with oil you are creating carbon dioxide. You got to find fuels that don’t take up land growing for food. We are looking at other type of materials.
One thing people are talking (about) more and more is algae, because it is not seasonal.