Universal Hydrogen Takes Flight With Largest Hydrogen Fuel Cell Ever
Universal Hydrogen Takes Flight With Largest Hydrogen Fuel Cell Ever
As a universal A hydrogen-branded aircraft, equipped with the largest hydrogen fuel cell ever designed to power an aircraft, has completed its first test flight in eastern Washington, co-founder and CEO Paul Eremenko told the dawn of a “new golden age of aviation”.
The 15-minute test flight of a modified Dash-8 aircraft was short, but it showed hydrogen could be a viable 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 advancements necessary to make it a mainstream product.
Dash-8s, a staple of regional airports, typically carry up to 50 passengers on short routes. The Dash-8 used on Thursday’s test flight from Grant County International Airport at Moses Lake had decidedly different cargo. The Universal Hydrogen test plane, dubbed Lightning McClean, had just two pilots, an engineer and lots of technology on board, including an electric motor and a hydrogen fuel cell provided by two other startups.
The stripped-down interior held two racks of electronics and sensors, and two large hydrogen tanks with 30 kg of fuel. Under the right wing of the aircraft, a magniX electric motor was driven by Plug Power’s new hydrogen fuel cell. This system turns hydrogen into electricity and water – an emission-free power plant that Eremenko says represents the future of aviation.
The fuel cell operated throughout the flight, generating up to 800kW of power and producing nothing but water vapor and smiles on the faces of a crowd of Universal engineers and investors hydrogen.
“We think that’s a pretty monumental achievement,” Eremenko said. “It keeps us on track to have probably the first hydrogen aircraft certified in passenger service.”
Aviation currently contributes around 2.5% of global carbon emissions and is expected to grow by 4% per year.
Still using jet fuel
The successful test flight does not mean fully zero-carbon aviation is imminent.
Under the Dash-8’s other wing rode a standard Pratt and Whitney turboprop (notice the difference in the photo above), with about twice as much power as the fuel cell side. This redundancy helped smooth the way with the FAA, which issued a Special Experimental Airworthiness Certificate for Dash-8 testing in early February.
One of the test pilots, Michael Bockler, told TechCrunch the plane “flew like a normal Dash-8, with just 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 idling.
“Until both engines are powered by hydrogen, it’s still just a show,” said a senior engineer consultant for the sustainable aviation industry. “But I don’t want to make fun of it because we need those springboards to learn.”
Part of the problem with today’s fuel cells is that they can be difficult to cool. Jet engines run much hotter, but expel most of that heat through their exhausts. Since fuel cells use an electrochemical reaction rather than simply burning hydrogen, 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 turning off its fuel cell in mid-air to allow it to cool, and then couldn’t restart it. ZeroAvia has since returned to the air with a hydrogen/fossil fuel hybrid setup similar to that of Universal Hydrogen, albeit on a smaller twin-engine aircraft.
Mark Cousin, CTO of Universal Hydrogen, told TechCrunch that its fuel cell can run all day without overheating, thanks to its large air ducts.
Another issue for fuel cell aircraft is storing the hydrogen needed to fly. Even in its densest, coolest liquid form, hydrogen contains only about a quarter of the energy of a similar volume of jet fuel. Wing tanks are not large enough for all but the shortest flights, so fuel must be stored in the fuselage. Today’s 15-minute flight used around 16kg of hydrogen gas, half the amount stored in two motorcycle-sized tanks in the cabin. 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 2021 Series A funding round led by Playground Global. Funding to date is approaching $100 million, including investments from Airbus, General Electric, American Airlines, JetBlue and Toyota. The company is headquartered just up 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 work on developing additional software and will eventually convert the aircraft to use liquid hydrogen. Early next year, the plane will likely be retired – with the fuel cell heading 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 soon 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 US carrier to use Universal Hydrogen’s technology, said “the partnership provides the fastest path to zero-emissions operation for the global airline industry. “.
Universal Hydrogen not only produces the razors, it also sells the blades.
Almost all of the hydrogen used today is produced at the point of consumption. It’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 needs to be kept at just 20 degrees above zero. absolute, which 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 from renewable energy. Only a tiny fraction of the hydrogen produced today is made this way.
If the hydrogen economy is really going to make a dent in the climate crisis, green hydrogen will have to become much easier – and cheaper – to produce, store and transport.
Eremenko originally started Universal Hydrogen to design standardized hydrogen modules that could be transported by standard tractor-trailers and simply inserted into planes or other vehicles for immediate use. The current design can hold liquid hydrogen for up to 100 hours, and he’s often compared that to the convenience of Nespresso units. Universal Hydrogen claims to have more than $2 billion in fuel service orders for the coming decade.
Prototype modules were shown in December and the company hopes to innovate later this year on a 630,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The nearly $400 million project is dependent on the success of an as yet undeclared US Department of Energy loan application for more than $200 million. Eremenko says the request has passed the first phase of due diligence within the DOE.
A long track
Some experts are skeptical that hydrogen will ever make a significant dent in aviation emissions. Bernard van Dijk, an aviation scientist with the Hydrogen Science Coalition, appreciates the simplicity of Universal Hydrogen’s modules, but notes that even NASA struggles to control hydrogen leaks with its rockets. “You still have to connect the canisters to the plane. How is this all going to be safe? Because if it leaks and someone lights a match, that’s a recipe for disaster,” he says. “I think they’re also underestimating the whole process of certifying a new hydrogen powertrain.”
Even when these obstacles are overcome, there remains the problem of producing enough green hydrogen from renewable electricity, at a price that people will be willing to play. “If you want all European flights to run on hydrogen, you would need 89,000 large wind turbines to produce enough hydrogen,” van Dijk says. “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, with the help of a $3 per kilogram subsidy for green hydrogen in Biden’s Cut Inflation Act. “Of all the things that keep me up at night,” he says, “the cost and availability of green hydrogens is not one of them.”