MOSES LAKE, Washington — A small crowd of investors, airline representatives and journalists at Moses Lake in Central Washington got a first look Thursday morning at whether hydrogen power might be the future of sustainable, zero-emissions aviation.
A turboprop De Havilland Canada Dash 8-300 retrofitted by Los Angeles-based startup Universal Hydrogen took off from Moses Lake in a brief pioneering flight aimed at proving the technology viable.
With a large tank of liquid hydrogen in the back of the cabin, reducing the seating capacity from over 50 passengers to about 40 — though only test pilot Alex Kroll and two flight crew were on board — the plane flew with one propeller powered by a regular Pratt & Whitney aviation fuel engine, the other by a motor fed electricity from a liquid hydrogen fuel cell.
The plane took off at 8:41 a.m. and made two passes around the airfield at a low altitude of about 11,500 feet before landing after 15 minutes.
During the flight, Kroll throttled back the gas engine almost to idle so that the plane cruised largely on the one hydrogen-powered engine under its right wing.
“It feels like a normal airplane. You hardly know that the engine … has been modified,” said Kroll, a former U.S. Air Force pilot. “All the noise was coming from the left side. Once we hit cruise, we throttled back and we flew almost exclusively on the right-hand engine. It was silent.”
“Wow. Pretty freakin’ amazing,” said Paul Eremenko, the Ukrainian-born CEO of Universal Hydrogen, after the plane landed. “We really witnessed something historic here.”
While the Soviets flew an experimental three-engine Tupolev Tu-155 in 1988 with one engine powered by hydrogen, the Dash 8 is now the second-largest plane ever to fly with hydrogen power and — because of that cruise phase on mostly one engine — Eremenko said it’s “the largest to cruise principally on hydrogen.”
Interviewed days before the flight, Eremenko, a clean-energy visionary who formerly served as chief technology officer at Airbus, said that climate change concerns create an existential crisis for air transport in the decades ahead. He sees hydrogen as the only solution to save aviation.
“If we don’t have a decarbonization solution as an industry we’re going to have to curtail traffic volumes, we’re going to have to curtail industry growth for the first time since the birth of the jet age,” he said.
Eremenko believes neither airplanes burning so-called “sustainable aviation fuel” nor those powered by electric batteries will get the aviation industry close to meeting its aggressive emission-reduction goals.
“Hydrogen is the only answer for aviation to get anywhere near the Paris Agreement targets,” he insists.
Hydrogen skeptics see impediments in the large tanks needed to hold the fuel; they worry about safety; and they doubt industry can produce the necessary quantities of so-called “green hydrogen” to deliver true zero-carbon emissions.
Eremenko aims to counter the doubters by certifying a hydrogen-powered plane and creating a practical infrastructure to deliver hydrogen to airports while proving the planes cost-effective for airlines.
He said he expects the Federal Aviation Administration to agree on the certification requirements for his hydrogen-powered airplanes within weeks, and that a flight test program with three airplanes to meet those requirements could win FAA approval to fly passengers as early as 2025.
In Eremenko’s futuristic vision, Thursday’s flight is only a first step toward the advent of Boeing 737-sized, single-aisle jet airliners powered with hydrogen as early as the 2030s.
“Our end game is the single-aisle jet. That class of airplane is more than 50% of all aviation emissions,” Eremenko said. “If they go hydrogen, then it will be a very different future for the aviation sector than if those are kerosene (regular aviation fuel) airplanes.”
Development of an all-new hydrogen-powered airplane of that size will require Airbus and Boeing to make multibillion-dollar bets. Spending just $300 million to $350 million to retrofit and certify hydrogen-powered regional airplanes, Eremenko intends to prod the two giants in that direction.
His role, he said, is “to prove that hydrogen is safe, that hydrogen is certifiable, to get passenger butts in seats, to show the unit economics and develop a hydrogen supply chain.”
“This is what we’re doing,” Eremenko said. “This is why I created this company.”
Twin tracks in Moses Lake and Toulouse
Universal is pursuing a two-track development push toward certification by the FAA and its European counterpart.
In Moses Lake, the retrofitted Dash 8 test-flew the system delivering the power that drives the propellers.
Hydrogen from the tank at the rear is pumped to fuel cells behind the propellers that convert it to electricity. This powers an electric motor supplied by MagniX of Everett that turns the propeller shaft.
Moses Lake was chosen as a test flight center for its long runway and clear airspace. And Seattle engineering firm AeroTEC integrated Universal’s design modifications into the airframe.
Meanwhile, in Toulouse, France, Universal is retrofitting a larger regional airplane, the ATR 72, to develop the removable modules of liquid hydrogen that are transportable by truck to make possible an infrastructure for delivering this fuel to airports around the world.
Universal plans for the ATR 72, configured with 56 seats, to be the first airplane it will certify and enter passenger service, with the Dash 8 to follow later.
Eremenko said Universal chose to make the initial flight with the Dash 8 in part because its large vertical tail and rudder provide more control when the plane flies on one engine.
The first airlines to fly Universal planes will be Connect Airlines, a Massachusetts startup that plans a fleet of hydrogen-powered ATR 72s, and Amelia, a French airline with a small fleet of regional aircraft, including 68-seat ATR 72s.
Scott Brownrigg, director of public affairs at Connect Airlines, said the carrier will start with regional service in the Northeast and Midwest and, though it is U.S.-based, will use Toronto as a hub.
“Today was great,” Brownrigg said Thursday. “We’re excited to be the first U.S. airline to fly these zero-emission aircraft.”
Eremenko said the hydrogen-powered ATR 72 will seat 12 fewer passengers to make room for the fuel modules and will also sacrifice range, flying only about half of the gas-fueled plane’s 1,000-mile range.
However, he said 98% the routes flown by the ATR 72 are less than 500 miles and many times the seats are only 80% filled.
Eremenko said he thinks the price of hydrogen in a few years will be competitive with jet fuel.
And he said airlines will save big on maintenance without all the wear on gas engines from rotating metal parts and internal combustion. The hydrogen fuel cell has no moving parts and the electric motor is a relatively simple design.
Bjorn Ferhm, an aerospace engineer and pilot typically skeptical of new sustainable airliner concepts, judged this “an operationally acceptable aircraft” in a December technical analysis for aviation trade site Leeham.net.
Fehrm wrote that delivering the modular hydrogen tanks by truck “solves the biggest problem, the supply and handling of hydrogen for the planes” in that it doesn’t require specialized infrastructure.
“This is a project with a real chance of success,” he concluded.
Will there be enough green hydrogen?
Universal’s project depends on a large reliable supply of what’s known as “green hydrogen.”
Most of the hydrogen used today is produced from natural gas in a process high in carbon-dioxide emissions.
Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis: running electricity through water. As long as the electricity is from renewable sources such as wind or solar, the process is emission free from start to finish.
The only emission trailing a hydrogen airplane is water vapor.
Very little green hydrogen is currently produced, and scaling it up will clearly take large investments. Some companies are doing so to build new facilities, notably Fortescue Future Industries in Australia.
Universal is partnering with Plug Power, a hydrogen supplier headquartered in Latham, New York.
Plug plans to begin producing green hydrogen in 2023 and projects 500 tons per day across the United States by 2025. It has broken ground on plants in New York and Georgia, and has announced others in Texas, California, Louisiana and Port of Antwerp-Bruges in the Netherlands.
However, the fragility of pioneering new ventures is reflected in Plug’s annual report filed Wednesday. Plug has lost money for all 16 years of its existence with massive net losses over the last three years, including almost $750 million last year.
At the end of 2022, Plug had an accumulated deficit of $3.1 billion.
Deloitte & Touche, the accounting firm that audited Plug’s financial statements in the annual report, issued “an adverse opinion on the effectiveness of the company’s internal control over financial reporting.”
Plug is only one hydrogen supplier, though.
Also attending Thursday’s event was Alison Hawkins, general manager of Hydrogen for Mobility at Pennsylvania-based energy company Air Products. Hawkins said her company has produced hydrogen for 60 years and is now developing low-carbon methods of producing hydrogen at scale.
Air Products is building a small green hydrogen facility in Casa Grande, Arizona, that’ll be on stream in early 2024 and a larger one in Massena, New York, that will be ready in 2026.
And in Saudi Arabia, in a joint venture with that government, it’s currently building what will be the world’s largest green hydrogen project at Neom, conceived as a new “clean energy” city on the Red Sea.
Using the site’s abundant wind and solar power and desalinated water, that plant is designed to produce 650 tons of green hydrogen per day.
Eremenko insists that with the plants currently under development “there will be more than enough green hydrogen to power regional aviation in the latter part of this decade.”
He said Connect and Amelia were selected as the launch airlines because they fly in regions where green hydrogen will be available early.
Yet Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury, who has been bullish on hydrogen, in November questioned the pace of investment in green hydrogen facilities.
“Lack of availability of clean hydrogen at the right quantity in the right place at the right price in the second half of the decade is a big concern for me,” Faury said.
Will hydrogen fuel be safe?
In a scathing piece in Aviation Week two years ago, Alan Epstein, an emeritus professor who taught Eremenko at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dismissed the notion of using hydrogen.
Part of his critique was safety: “Surrounding passengers with thousands of gallons of super-chilled, highly flammable liquid hydrogen is unacceptable” Epstein wrote.
Eremenko points out that filling the wings of a conventional jet with kerosene and igniting it to produce power sounds similarly frightening but is engineered to be safe. Passengers fly on such planes every day.
Universal’s modular tank has leak detection. If hydrogen leaks, the tank vents over a catalyst to turn the hydrogen to water.
Eremenko showed a video of fire tests on a hydrogen-powered car, in which the hydrogen ignited and burned off harmlessly, compared to the outcome on a regular car that was engulfed in flames by pooling gasoline.
“Hydrogen is probably going to be safer than jet fuel,” Eremenko said.
And during FAA certification, Universal will have to meet the same safety standards as any aircraft, including providing evidence of some protection of passengers in a crash.
Eremenko points out that for a startup such as Universal, there’s no question of the FAA passing oversight to the company — as it did, for example, to Boeing in certifying the 737 Max.
“The FAA has always been hands on. We don’t have self-certification authority or delegation,” he said, “We have to go through the full process.”
Universal expects to fly its ATR next year.
Further tests of the Dash 8 may fly out of Moses Lake. But Eremenko said that due to the “very brutal winter in Moses Lake” that held up progress, the company will “probably do future flight testing out of Mojave.”
Addressing Universal’s early investors among the crowd at Moses Lake, Eremenko said “we’re gonna need a lot more capital to get through certification and into service.”
Universal has so far attracted investments of about $100 million. Eremenko estimates it will need another $200 million to $250 million to reach entry into passenger service.
Thursday’s first flight was a short yet ambitious hop toward that goal.
Eremenko told the assembled investors that this will be “one investment in your portfolio where you can go home every night and think to yourself that you did good by your children, by the world.”
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