There is an increasing number of calls for a step change in the efficiency of commercial aircraft today. Making it happen is more difficult than many realize – in part because commercial airliners are already quite efficient. They are many times more efficient than our cars. Battery-electric aircraft may be possible at a very small scale, for general aviation. But scaling these up to the size of small turboprops could well be unrealistic.
This is where hydrogen comes in. Universal Hydrogen isn’t the first company to fly a plane on hydrogen – but its Dash-8 is the biggest such aircraft. The company replaced the right Pratt & Whitney Canada turboprop with an electric motor and a fuel cell. The fuel cell generates electricity by using hydrogen, which is stored in fuel tanks placed in the cabin.
We have seen efforts from many other companies, engaging in hydrogen aircraft projects. ZeroAvia comes to mind, at the smaller end. And of course, Airbus has been working on a number of challenges in hydrogen flight, including the conversion of an A380 into a flying testbed. But what makes Universal Hydrogen and its Dash-8 different, is that it is focusing on hydrogen’s supply chain problem.
The Nespresso Capsule of Aviation?
There is no question that designing a reliable hydrogen fuel cell or hydrogen combustion platform will be an enormous aviation challenge. But figuring out how to transport hydrogen to airports, store it if necessary and get it onto aircraft, will be as big a challenge. This is where Universal Hydrogen and its Dash-8 (AND an ATR-72) come in.
The company’s plan is to design and standardize a transportable and switchable hydrogen fuel tank system. Using a cargo-style side door, one or more of these tanks will take up some room in the passenger cabin. This will reduce seating capacity by 12 seats. Airlines and airports would use standard loading equipment to swap fuel tanks between flights.
Universal Hydrogen’s plan is to focus on designing this fuel tank system. It is partnering with others for the fuel cell and other equipment. This is why its CEO, and co-founder, Paul Eremenko, has said that the company wants to be “the Nespresso capsule” of aviation. Nespresso never made the coffee machines (aside from licensing a few)… only the capsules. Universal Hydrogen actually calls its modular hydrogen fuel tank system a “hydrogen capsule”.
However, this first flight was only a step in proving this concept. The first aircraft that Universal Hydrogen plans to put into service is not a Dash-8. Its system will eventually become available for this family of aircraft – but only after the ATR-72. The ATR will be the aircraft that will actually prove the “hydrogen capsule” concept.
Universal Hydrogen Dash-8 Flies Over Moses Lake
So, the role of the Universal Hydrogen Dash-8 is to help engineers test and refine the rest of the all-important power train. For its inaugural flight, the aircraft took off using both turboprop and hydrogen-electric fuel cell power. Then its pilot throttled back the turboprop and cruised mainly on the test engine.
This first flight took off from Grant County International Airport (Moses Lake – KMWH) and lasted around 15 minutes. The Universal Hydrogen Dash-8 didn’t climb very high, reaching 3,500 feet AMSL (airport elevation is ~1,200 feet AMSL).
Once Universal Hydrogen proves its powertrain in the Dash-8, flight tests with its ATR-72 will follow. The company aims to have a certified version of its conversion operational as early as 2025. For this to happen, the company will need to get the FAA’s certification requirements for the system very soon.
Universal Hydrogen’s Paul Eremenko previously worked as chief technology officer at Airbus. Airbus Ventures is one of Universal Hydrogen’s investors. Eremenko believes that the Universal Hydrogen “capsule” technology can be scaled up to the size of a single-aisle airliner – well beyond the regional Dash-8 and ATR fleets. Ground vehicles could also use the same capsules, creating a more extensive (or more universal?) use case for the product.
Airbus is taking the hydrogen supply chain problem seriously, participating in the Hydrogen Council, a body studying the matter in detail. Universal Hydrogen’s solution could be a practical way to sidestep the issue – if the weight of the capsules and other factors don’t pose any insurmountable problems.
Sources: Seattle Times, Leeham News
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