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The largest hydrogen fuel cell ever to fly takes to the skies thanks to Universal Hydrogen

Co-founder and CEO Paul Eremenko called it the start of a “new golden age of aviation” as a Universal Hydrogen-branded jet made its first test flight in eastern Washington using the largest hydrogen fuel cell ever used to power an aircraft.

Even though the 15-minute test flight of the modified Dash-8 was short, it showed that hydrogen may be a good fuel for short-haul passenger planes.That is, if Universal Hydrogen and other companies working in the growing field of hydrogen flight can make the technological and political changes needed to make their product popular.

Dash-8s, a mainstay at rural airports, typically carry up to 50 people on short flights. The cargo on the Dash-8 that took off on Thursday for the test flight from Moses Lake’s Grant County International Airport was significantly different. Only two pilots, an engineer, and a lot of technology were aboard the Lightning McClean test plane for Universal Hydrogen, including an electric motor and a hydrogen fuel cell provided by two other firms.

Two racks of electronics and sensors, as well as two enormous hydrogen tanks holding 30 kg of fuel, were all that could be found inside the bare interior. The new hydrogen fuel cell from Plug Power was powering an electric motor from MagniX that was located beneath the right wing of the aircraft. This device converts hydrogen into energy and water, creating an emission-free power source that Eremenko views as the aviation industry’s power source of the future.

The fuel cell ran the whole time, but all it made was water vapor and smiles from the Universal Hydrogen engineers and investors who were there.It could produce up to 800 kW of power.

Eremenko remarked, “We think it’s a really tremendous achievement.” It helps us stay on schedule to put the first certified hydrogen aircraft in passenger service, if not sooner.

Now making up around 2.5% of the world’s carbon emissions, aviation is expected to increase by 4% annually.

Consuming jet fuel even now

Even if the test flight was successful, completely carbon-free flying is still a ways off.

Under the other wing of the Dash-8 was a regular Pratt & Whitney turboprop engine that had about twice as much power as the fuel-cell side (note the difference in the picture above).This made it easier to talk to the FAA, which gave the Dash-8 tests an experimental special airworthiness certificate at the beginning of February.

According to Michael Bockler, one of the test pilots, the plane “flew like a conventional Dash-8, with just a slight yaw.” He saw that for a short time while the plane was flying in a straight line, the turboprop engine was turned down and the fuel cells did almost all of the work.

It’s still just a show, according to a senior engineer providing consulting services to the sustainable aviation sector, until both motors are powered by hydrogen. But I don’t want to mock it because we require these stepping stones in order to grow.

The difficulty of cooling today’s fuel cells is one of its problems. Despite running substantially hotter, jet engines mostly dissipate their heat through their exhausts. The waste heat from fuel cells must be eliminated via a network of heat exchangers and vents since they involve an electrochemical reaction rather than just burning hydrogen.

Another startup, ZeroAvia, which is working on hydrogen fuel cells for aircraft, wrecked its first flying prototype in 2021 after stopping its fuel cell mid-flight to let it cool. It was then unable to restart the fuel cell. Since then, ZeroAvia has resumed flight operations using a hybrid hydrogen/fossil fuel configuration identical to that of Universal Hydrogen, but on a smaller twin-engine aircraft.

Mark Cousin, the CTO at Universal Hydrogen, says that the fuel cell’s large air ducts let it work continuously without getting too hot.

Keeping the hydrogen necessary for flight on board fuel cell aircraft is another challenge. Even in its densest, supercooled liquid state, hydrogen only has roughly 25% the energy of jet fuel in a comparable volume. Because wing tanks can only hold enough gasoline for the shortest flights, the fuel must be kept inside the fuselage. Half of the gaseous hydrogen that was kept in two motorbike-sized tanks within the passenger compartment was utilized during today’s 15-minute trip, or around 16 kilograms. Later this year, Universal Hydrogen intends to convert its test aircraft to run on liquid hydrogen.

Producing modules

Eremenko co-founded Universal Hydrogen in 2020, and in a 2021 Series A fundraising round that Playground Global also co-led, the business raised $20.5 million.Investments from Airbus, General Electric, American Airlines, JetBlue, and Toyota bring the total funding to close to $100 million. The company has an engineering center in Toulouse, France, and its main office is in Hawthorne, California, not far from SpaceX.

At Moses Lake, Universal Hydrogen will now carry out more tests. The business will continue to develop its software and eventually convert the aircraft to run on liquid hydrogen. The airplane will probably be retired at the beginning of the following year, and the fuel cell will go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Universal Hydrogen wants to start selling kits to convert regional planes like the Dash-8 to use fuel cells as early as 2025.About 250 orders for repairs worth more than $1 billion have already been placed with the company by 16 clients, such as Air New Zealand.Connect Airlines CEO John Thomas stated that the agreement “provides the fastest road to zero-emissions operations for the global aviation sector.” Connect Airlines hopes to be the first U.S. carrier to deploy Universal Hydrogen’s technology.

In addition to making the razors, Universal Hydrogen also markets the blades.

Almost all of the hydrogen that is used today is made right where it is used.Hydrogen is hard to store because it leaks easily and can damage standard steel containers. However, the main reason is that to be useful, hydrogen must be kept as a dense liquid at a temperature of just 20 degrees above absolute zero, which often requires expensive refrigeration.

The liquid hydrogen used in the Moses Lake test came from a commercial source of “green hydrogen” gas, which was made using renewable energy.The amount of hydrogen created with this method is extremely small.

Green hydrogen will need to become cheaper and easier to create, store, and transport if the hydrogen economy is to have any serious impact on the climate catastrophe.

Eremenko started Universal Hydrogen with the goal of making standard hydrogen modules that could be moved by semi-trucks of any size and were easy to put into planes or other vehicles so they could be used right away.He often said that they were as useful as Nespresso machines, because the current design can keep liquid hydrogen for up to 100 hours.According to Universal Hydrogen, it has more than $2 billion in fuel servicing orders over the next ten years.

The company showed off prototype modules in December, and it plans to break ground on a 630,000-square-foot production facility for them in Albuquerque, New Mexico, later this year. A previously undisclosed loan application from the US Department of Energy for more than $200 million is a requirement for that over $400 million project. According to Eremenko, the application has successfully completed the DOE’s initial round of due diligence.

Lengthy runway
Some experts doubt that hydrogen will ever reduce aviation emissions significantly. The Hydrogen Science Coalition’s Bernard van Dijk, an aviation expert, acknowledges the ease of use of Universal Hydrogen’s modules but points out that even NASA has difficulty preventing hydrogen leaks from its rockets. “The canisters must still be connected to the airplane. How will everything be secured? But calamity is guaranteed if it leaks and someone ignites a match, he says. They may also be underestimating the certification procedure for a new hydrogen powertrain, in my opinion.

Even if these problems are solved, it will still be hard to make enough green hydrogen using renewable electricity at a price that consumers will pay.Van Dijk says that it would take 89,000 big wind turbines to make enough hydrogen to power all the planes in Europe.The area they would occupy would be roughly twice the size of the Netherlands.

Eremenko is still sure that Universal Hydrogen and its partners will succeed, though, because Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act includes a $3 per kilogram subsidy for green hydrogen. The price and accessibility of green hydrogens, he claims, “are not among the things that keep me up at night.”

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