Hydrogen offers the only clear pathway for aviation to achieve true carbon neutrality, and the key obstacle to its widespread adoption as a power source is the complexity of the required supporting infrastructure. That, in a nutshell, is the hypothesis on which California-based startup Universal Hydrogen is shaping a business model built around spurring early adoption by making it easy for operators to switch from fossil fuel to hydrogen.
Universal Hydrogen, cofounded seven months ago by Airbus’s former chief technology officer, Paul Eremenko, is working on a plan to re-engine Dash 8 and ATR 42 regional airliners with fuel-cell electric propulsion and refillable hydrogen modules. The modules will be supplied full, directly from hydrogen production facilities to the aircraft. The company is offering to cover all or part of the conversion-kit costs for the propulsion system in return for long-term contracts to supply the hydrogen.
According to Eremenko, it would be far too capital intensive to supply hydrogen in the same way that jet-A fuel reaches aircraft today, via ships, pipelines, and trucks. “Infrastructure is the main problem and the solution we’re building is a capital-light approach to delivering hydrogen to any airport in the world,” Eremenko told FutureFlight.
Universal Hydrogen’s response has been to treat the fuel as dry freight and find a safe, efficient way to maintain supply to airlines. Its modules, which are around seven feet long and three feet in diameter, can carry the hydrogen in liquid or compressed gas form to be loaded into the back of the aircraft via standard cargo-loading equipment or a forklift.
According to the company, aircraft of the size of the Dash 8 or the ATR 42 will have 460 miles of usable range (allowing for reserves) with compressed gas hydrogen or 633 miles with liquid hydrogen. This means they would be able to serve, respectively, about 75 and 95 percent of the routes flown by these types of aircraft.
The hydrogen modules will be loaded into the rear of the aircraft and placed in a compartment that will replace the last two rows of seats. This will reduce capacity from around 50 passengers to 40, but Universal Hydrogen says the cost to fly each seat a given distance will stay the same.
Plumbing lines will run from the modules through the aircraft’s dorsal fins into each of the two nacelles where fuel cells and electric motors are installed to power the existing propellers. Essentially, the hydrogen modules take the place of batteries in the electric propulsion system.
On September 15, electric-power pioneer MagniX announced that it will partner with Universal Hydrogen to provide a pair of 2 MW electric propulsion systems for the conversion kit. The Washington state-based company is already working to develop electric-powered versions of the Twin Otter and DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver aircraft. Canadian regional airline Harbour Air is planning to replace its fleet with the electric Beaver models.
Universal Hydrogen says that the additional weight of the fuel modules will be mostly balanced by the removal of two rows of seats and that the modifications to the fuselage and powertrain will not result in an increase in the maximum takeoff weight of the aircraft. As part of the supplemental type certificate process for the conversion, the company will have to complete drop, burst, and vent tests on the modules. From extensive testing by NASA and in the automotive industry, it is well established that gasoline is far more explosive than hydrogen, which burns quickly and rises from the point of ignition rather than engulfing the vehicle.
Its business model calls for Universal Hydrogen to license the conversion work to approved maintenance, repair, and overhaul providers. The work would typically be completed during scheduled major maintenance on the aircraft. The company estimates that over 2,200 regional airliners worldwide would be suitable for conversion.
The company believes it can get the first converted aircraft into commercial service before the end of 2024.
In the longer term, it is looking to partner with aircraft manufacturers to provide its hydrogen propulsion systems as forward-fit on new aircraft.
“In the late 2020s, Boeing, Airbus, and Comac are all going to make decisions on their new single-aisle aircraft and there is a real possibility that these could be hydrogen-powered,” Eremenko said.
Between 2015 and December 2018, he was with Airbus, initially helping to establish the European group’s Silicon Valley-based Acubed innovation division and then becoming chief technology officer. Between January 2018 and September 2019, he served as senior vice president and chief technology officer with United Technologies (now Raytheon). He told FutureFlight that he cofounded Universal Hydrogen because he does not see major aerospace corporations rapidly pioneering major shifts in technology, like hydrogen propulsion, because, in his view, their “incrementalist mindset” approach impedes progress.
Since late 2019, Airbus has increasingly signaled its intention to pursue hydrogen propulsion, perhaps in part as a result of what it has learned from testing the battery-based Vahana and CityAirbus eVTOL technology demonstrators.
Meanwhile, several startups are working on small hydrogen-powered aircraft for a variety of applications including air taxi services and emergency medical support. These include ZeroAvia, Urban Aeronautics, and Happy Takeoff.
In July hydrogen fuel cell developer HyPoint said that it expects to have a full-scale 150-kW system ready to deliver to an undisclosed electric aircraft manufacturer during the first quarter of 2022. The California-based company hopes to have a 1-kW unit ready for testing by early 2021, followed by a 15-kW unit. In June it signed a memorandum of understanding to provide hydrogen fuel cells for Urban Aeronautics’ CityHawk eVTOL aircraft, which is expected to enter service between 2028 and 2030.
Eremenko sees hydrogen production capacity expanding fairly rapidly around the world. The fuel is produced through a process of electrolysis that separates hydrogen and oxygen in water.
The Los Angeles-based startup self-funded to the tune of around $3 million with an additional $2 million in contributions from undisclosed partners. It estimates it will need to raise in the aggregate around $300 million to meet its goal of the first converted aircraft entering service in 2024. In addition to Eremenko, the other cofounders are corporate attorney Jon Gordon; John-Paul Clarke, an aeronautics professor and a former vice president of strategic technologies with United Technologies; and Jason Chua, the new company’s chief operating officer, who also came from United Technologies.