As universal Hydrogen-branded aircraft, equipped with the largest hydrogen fuel cell ever to power an aircraft, made its first test flight in eastern Washington, co-founder and CEO Paul Eremenko declared, marking the moment of a “new golden age of the aviation”.
The 15-minute test flight of a modified Dash-8 aircraft was short, but it showed that hydrogen could be viable as a fuel for short-haul passenger jets. That is, if Universal Hydrogen – and others in the emerging world of hydrogen flight – can make the technical and regulatory advancements necessary to make it a mainstream product.
Dash-8s, a staple at regional airports, usually carry up to 50 passengers on short distances. The Dash-8 used on Thursday’s test flight from Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake had a distinctly different payload. The Universal Hydrogen test plane, nicknamed Lightning McClean, had just two pilots, an engineer and a lot of technology on board, including an electric motor and hydrogen fuel cell provided by two other startups.
The stripped-down interior contained two racks of electronics and sensors, and two large hydrogen tanks with 30 kg of fuel. Under the aircraft’s right wing, a magniX electric motor was powered by Plug Power’s new hydrogen fuel cell. This system converts hydrogen into electricity and water – a zero-emission power plant that Eremenko says represents the future of aviation.
The fuel cell worked throughout the flight, generating up to 800 kW of power and producing nothing but water vapor and a smile on the faces of a crowd of Universal Hydrogen engineers and investors.
“We think it’s quite a monumental achievement,” Eremenko said. “It keeps us on track to probably have the first certified hydrogen aircraft in passenger service.”
Aviation currently contributes about 2.5% of global carbon emissions and is expected to grow at a rate of 4% per year.
Table of Contents
Still uses jet fuel
The test flight, which was a success, does not mean that completely carbon-free aviation is just around the corner.
Running under the other wing of the Dash-8 was a standard Pratt and Whitney turboprop engine (note the difference in the photo above), with about twice the power of the fuel cell side. That redundancy helped pave a path with the FAA, which issued an experimental special airworthiness certificate for the Dash-8 tests in early February.
One of the test pilots, Michael Bockler, told businessupdates.org that the plane “flew like a normal Dash-8, with just a slight yaw.” He noted that at one point, in level flight, the aircraft was flying almost entirely on fuel cell power, with the turboprop engine down.
“Until both engines are powered by hydrogen, it’s just a show,” said a senior engineer who advises the sustainable aviation industry. “But I don’t want to make fun of it, because we need these stepping stones to learn.”
Part of the problem with today’s fuel cells is that they are difficult to cool. Jet engines get much hotter, but dissipate most of that heat through their exhausts. Because fuel cells use an electrochemical reaction rather than simply burning hydrogen, the waste heat must be removed through a system of heat exchangers and vents.
ZeroAvia, another startup developing hydrogen fuel cells for aviation, crashed its first flying prototype in 2021 after shutting down its fuel cell in mid-air to cool it down, and then couldn’t restart it. ZeroAvia has since taken to the skies again with a hybrid hydrogen/fossil fuel setup similar to Universal Hydrogen’s, albeit on a smaller twin-engine aircraft.
Mark Cousin, Universal Hydrogen’s CTO, told businessupdates.org that the large air channels allow the fuel cell to run all day without overheating.
Another problem for fuel cell aircraft is the storage of the hydrogen needed to fly. Even in its densest, supercooled liquid form, hydrogen contains only about a quarter of the energy of a comparable volume of jet fuel. Wing tanks are not large enough for only the shortest flights, so fuel must be stored in the fuselage. Today’s 15-minute flight used about 16 kg of gaseous hydrogen – half the amount stored in two motorcycle-sized tanks in the passenger compartment. Universal Hydrogen plans to convert its test aircraft to run on liquid hydrogen later this year.
Eremenko co-founded Universal Hydrogen in 2020, and the company raised $20.5 million in a Series A funding round in 2021 led by Playground Global. Funding to date is approaching $100 million, including investments from Airbus, General Electric, American Airlines, JetBlue and Toyota. The company’s headquarters are just down the road from SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, with a technical facility in Toulouse, France.
Universal Hydrogen will now conduct further testing at Moses Lake. The company will work on additional software development and eventually convert the aircraft to use liquid hydrogen. Early next year, the plane is likely to be retired and the fuel cell will go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
Universal Hydrogen hopes to begin shipping fuel cell conversion kits for regional jets like the Dash-8 as early as 2025. The company already has nearly 250 retrofit orders worth more than $1 billion from 16 customers, including Air New Zealand. John Thomas, CEO of Connect Airlines, which plans to be the first U.S. airline to adopt Universal Hydrogen’s technology, said the “collaboration provides the fastest path to zero-emissions operation for the global aviation industry.”
Universal Hydrogen not only produces the razors, but also sells the blades.
Almost all of the hydrogen used today is produced at the point of consumption. That’s not just because hydrogen leaks easily and can damage traditional steel containers, but mainly because in its most useful form – a compact liquid – it must be kept at only 20 degrees above absolute zero, which usually requires expensive refrigeration.
The liquid hydrogen used in the Moses Lake test came from a commercial gas supplier of “green hydrogen,” meaning it was made using renewable energy. Only a small portion of the hydrogen produced today is made this way.
If the hydrogen economy really starts to make a dent in the climate crisis, green hydrogen will have to become a lot easier – and cheaper – to produce, store and transport.
Eremenko originally started Universal Hydrogen to design standardized hydrogen modules that could be towed through standard semi-trucks and simply slid into airplanes or other vehicles for immediate use. The current design can keep hydrogen liquid for up to 100 hours, and he has often compared them to the convenience of Nespresso units. Universal Hydrogen says it has more than $2 billion in fuel service orders for the next decade.
Prototype modules were demonstrated in December, and the company hopes to break ground for a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for them in Albuquerque, New Mexico, later this year. That nearly $400 million project is contingent on the success of a previously unreported $200+ million loan application from the U.S. Department of Energy. Eremenko says the application has passed the first phase of due diligence within the DOE.
A long runway
Some experts are skeptical that hydrogen will ever make a significant dent in aviation emissions. Bernard van Dijk, aviation scientist at the Hydrogen Science Coalition, appreciates the simplicity of Universal Hydrogen’s modules, but notes that even NASA has trouble controlling hydrogen leaks with its rockets. “You still have to connect the buses to the plane. How is all this safe? Because if it leaks and someone lights a match, it’s a recipe for disaster,” he says. “I think they are also underestimating the whole certification process for a new hydrogen powertrain.”
Even if those obstacles are overcome, there is still the problem of making enough green hydrogen from renewable electricity, at a price that people are willing to pay. “If you want to get all European flights on hydrogen, you need 89,000 large wind turbines to produce enough hydrogen,” says van Dijk. “They would cover an area about twice the size of the Netherlands.”
But Eremenko remains convinced that Universal Hydrogen and its partners can make it work, using a $3 per kilogram grant for green hydrogen in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. “Of all the things that keep me up at night,” he says, “the cost and availability of green hydrogen is not one of them.”