Universal Hydrogen takes to the air with the largest hydrogen fuel cell ever to fly

as universal A hydrogen-branded plane, equipped with the largest hydrogen fuel cell ever to power an aircraft, has made its first test flight in eastern Washington, and co-founder and CEO Paul Eremenko heralds the dawning moment of the “new golden age of aviation.”

The 15-minute test flight of the modified Dash-8 was short, but it showed that hydrogen could be viable as a fuel for short-hop passenger planes. That is, if Universal Hydrogen — and others in the emerging world of hydrogen flight — can achieve the technical and regulatory advances needed to make it a mainstream product.

Dash-8s, a staple at regional airports, usually carry up to 50 passengers on short trips. The Dash-8 used for the test flight Thursday from Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake was an entirely different cargo. Nicknamed the Lightning McClean, the global hydrogen test plane had only two pilots, an engineer and plenty of technology on board, including an electric motor and a hydrogen fuel cell provided by two other start-ups.

The stripped interior contained two racks of electronics and sensors, and two large hydrogen tanks with 30 kg of fuel. Underneath the plane’s right wing was a MagniX electric motor driven by Plug Power’s new hydrogen fuel cell. This system converts hydrogen into electricity and water – a zero-emissions power plant that Eremenko believes represents the future of aviation.

The fuel cell runs throughout the flight, generating up to 800 kilowatts of power and producing nothing but water vapor and smiles on the faces of the crowd of Universal Hydrogen engineers and investors.

“We think it’s a pretty colossal achievement,” said Eremenko. “It keeps us on track to have probably the first certified hydrogen aircraft in passenger service.”

Aviation currently contributes about 2.5% to global carbon emissions and is expected to grow at 4% annually.

Jet fuel is still used

Global hydrogen engines

The Universal Hydrogen-branded aircraft also relied on jet fuel. Note the Pratt & Whitney propeller under one wing. Image credits: Mark Harris

The test flight, which was a success, doesn’t mean that completely zero-carbon aviation is just around the corner.

Under the Dash-8’s other wing ran a standard Pratt and Whitney turboprop engine (note the difference in the photo above), with about twice as much power as the fuel cell side. This iteration helped pave the way with the FAA, which issued a private pilot certificate of airworthiness for the Dash-8 tests in early February.

One of the test pilots, Michael Böckler, told TechCrunch that the plane “flew like a regular Dash-8, with only a slight yaw.” He noted that at one point, in level flight, the plane was flying almost entirely on fuel cell power, with the turboprop throttled.

“Unless both engines are powered by hydrogen, it’s still just a show,” said a senior engineer consulting for the sustainable aviation sector. “But I don’t want to make fun of that because we need these key points to learn.”

Part of the problem with fuel cells today is that they are difficult to cool. Jet engines run hotter, but they expel most of that heat through their exhaust. Because fuel cells use an electrochemical reaction rather than just 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 flight prototype in 2021 after turning off the fuel cell in air to allow it to cool, then being unable to turn it back on. Since then, ZeroAvia has taken to the air again with a hydrogen/fossil fuel hybrid that is similar to the Universal Hydrogen system, though on a smaller, twin-engine plane.

Mark Kosin, chief technology officer of Universal Hydrogen, told TechCrunch that its fuel cell can run all day without overheating, thanks to large air ducts.

Another problem for fuel cell aircraft is the storage of hydrogen needed for flight. Even in its most dense and liquid supercooling form, hydrogen contains only a quarter of the energy of a comparable volume of jet fuel. Wing tanks are not large enough for any flights but the shortest, and so fuel must be stored inside the fuselage. Today’s 15-minute ride used about 16kg of gaseous hydrogen – half the amount stored in two motorcycle-sized tanks inside the passenger cabin. Universal Hydrogen plans to convert its test aircraft to run on liquid hydrogen later this year.

making units

Universal hydrogen unit

Universal hydrogen unit. Image credits: Mark Harris

Eremenko co-founded Universal Hydrogen in 2020, and the company raised $20.5 million in a 2021 Series A funding round led by Playground Global. Funding to date is close to $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 an engineering facility in Toulouse, France.

Universal Hydrogen will now conduct further testing at Moses Lake. The company will develop additional software and eventually convert the aircraft to use liquid hydrogen. Early next year, the aircraft will likely be retired — with the fuel cell headed to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Universal Hydrogen hopes to start 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. . “The partnership provides the fastest path to zero-emissions operation for the global aviation sector,” said John Thomas, CEO of Connect Airlines, which plans to be the first US airline to use Universal Hydrogen technology.

Universal Hydrogen doesn’t just make razors – it sells blades, too.

Almost all hydrogen used today is produced at the point of consumption. This is not only because hydrogen leaks easily and can damage conventional steel containers, but mainly because in its most useful form – a pressurized liquid – it must be kept at only 20 degrees above absolute zero, and it usually requires expensive refrigeration.

The liquid hydrogen used in the Moses Lake test came from a commercial “green hydrogen” gas supplier – meaning it was made using renewable energy. Only a tiny fraction of the hydrogen produced today is made this way.

If the hydrogen economy is to make a real impact on 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 modular hydrogen units that could be transported by standard semi-trucks and simply installed in aircraft or other vehicles for immediate use. The current design can keep liquid hydrogen for up to 100 hours, and it’s often likened to Nespresso convenience units. Universal Hydrogen says it has more than $2 billion in fuel service orders for the next decade.

Prototypes were shown in December, and the company hopes to start later this year at its 630,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This $400 million project is contingent on the success of a previously unreported $200 million US Department of Energy loan request. Eremenko says the application has passed the first stage of due diligence within the DOE.

long runway

Some experts doubt that hydrogen will make a significant dent in aviation emissions. Bernard Van Dyck, an aeronautical scientist with the Hydrogen Science Alliance, appreciates the simplicity of global hydrogen modules, but notes that even NASA has trouble controlling hydrogen leakage with its rockets. You still have to get the packages on the plane. How will all of this become safe? Because if it leaks and someone lights a match, that’s a recipe for disaster.” “I think they also underestimate the whole certification process for a new hydrogen generating set.”

Even when these hurdles are overcome, there is the problem of producing enough green hydrogen using renewable electricity, at a price that people will be willing to play. “If you want to have all European flights with hydrogen, you would need 89,000 large wind turbines to produce enough hydrogen,” says van Dijk. “They will cover an area twice the size of the Netherlands.”

But Eremenko remains convinced Universal Hydrogen and its partners can make it work, with the help of a $3 per kilogram subsidy for green hydrogen in the Biden inflation-reduction bill. “Of all the things that keep me up at night, the cost and availability of green hydrogen is not one of them,” he says.

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