HyPoint has built the first working prototype of its turbo air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell system for aircraft. The California-based start-up says it will begin delivering full-scale versions of the technology to partners in 2022, supporting plans for both new eVTOL aircraft and the conversion of existing models to hydrogen propulsion.
According to HyPoint, its system's performance will outstrip that of existing fuel cells by delivering 2,000 watts per kilogram of specific power and an energy density of 1,500 watt-hours per kilogram. The company claims its competitive edge over other companies pioneering fuel cell technology for aircraft reflects a decision to use compressed air for both cooling and oxygen supplies for a high-temperature fuel cell system that it says weighs just a third as much as comparable liquid-cooled systems.
Cofounder and CEO Alex Ivanenko told FutureFlight that it built the prototype using multiple fuel cells as a means to evaluate not only the overall design, but also the use of technologies such as highly conductive, lightweight aluminum foil bipolar plates and other corrosion-resistant materials. “We are the first company to combine this technology with a high-temperature membrane, so it is not just a fuel cell stack, it’s a complete test rig that will help us to create algorithms for real operations,” he explained.
HyPoint’s plan calls for it to scale up the number of cells to meet the power needs of different applications. It claims that its decision to opt for an air-cooled, high-temperature approach has reduced the weight of the hardware by just over 60 percent, resulting in greater overall flexibility and efficiency.
HyPoint is one of several fuel cell manufacturers supporting the development work being done by ZeroAvia to convert existing fixed-wing aircraft to hydrogen propulsion. ZeroAvia’s plans call for it to have an aircraft seating up to 20 passengers ready to enter commercial service by the end of 2023, operating on routes of up to 575 miles.
The program has secured almost $38 million in funding from both the UK government and private investors including Amazon, Shell, and a fund backed by Bill Gates. ZeroAvia has not yet resolved which fuel cells it will use for the production aircraft.
According to ZeroAvia founder and CEO Val Miftakhov, the company already has around 15 letters of intent signed by operators that intend to convert their aircraft to hydrogen power. British Airways has already made a provisional commitment and ZeroAvia expects to reach agreement with another four carriers over the next few months. Shell has agreed to work with the company on fueling infrastructure at airports.
The ZeroAvia team intends to conduct longer-range demonstration flights during 2021 with its Piper M Series testbed aircraft. In the second half of this year, it wants to start flight testing the propulsion system on a 20-seat Dornier 228 twin-turboprop aircraft.
Miftakhov told FutureFlight that it will likely take another 10 to 15 years to get to the point where airlines can replace their single-aisle fleets (i.e., aircraft seating more than 100 passengers) with hydrogen-powered alternatives. The conversion time for larger, long-haul widebodies is projected at more like 15 to 20 years.
Miftakhov acknowledged the engineering challenges of reducing the weight of hardware in hydrogen powertrains, which companies like HyPoint say they are addressing. ZeroAvia believes it may take another five to seven years to deliver specific power levels from hydrogen fuel cell stacks that are comparable to those of current turbine engines.
"We don't have to wait another 10 years to start making progress," Miftakhov said. "We are already flying [the propulsion system] and planning for the powerplant to go into commercial service three years from now."
Miftakhov believes that cargo services may adopt hydrogen power before it is employed more widely for passenger flights. In his view, government tax incentives could be decisive in persuading aircraft operators to make the switch, as has already been the case with electric ground vehicles in California.
Ivanenko claimed that his team’s technology offers the best prospects for fast-tracking the commercial viability of hydrogen propulsion based on the specific power and energy density performance it has already achieved. HyPoint, which recently began working with standards organization ASTM International, believes that the certification process for hydrogen propulsion systems should be clearer by around September 2021 and that at that point it will be more straightforward to publish a road map for getting fuel cell technology approved for use in aircraft.
In June 2020, Urban Aeronautics asked HyPoint to provide a fuel cell system for its planned CityHawk eVTOL aircraft. At the time, the Israeli company indicated that it aimed to be ready to start test flights with an initial hybrid-electric prototype by early 2023, with a view to getting a full-hydrogen aircraft in service between 2028 and 2030. Ivanenko said that the companies are still discussing possible specifications for the propulsion system.
Separately, HyPoint is supporting Piasecki Aircraft’s plans to develop an eVTOL design called the PA-890. This is a compound helicopter design using slowed-rotor technology with a three-bladed main rotor and rear propeller in the tail to support cruise flight. The U.S. company has yet to publish a detailed timeline for the program and Ivanenko confirmed that this is not the partner set to receive the first fuel cell system in 2022.
HyPoint expects to announce a further collaboration later this year with an undisclosed electric motor manufacturer for a new fuel cell application that could replace the company’s dependence on lithium-ion batteries. Several electric propulsion innovators, including MagniX and Ampaire, are working on plans to replace turbine engines on aircraft such as the Cessna Grand Caravan.
Ivanenko acknowledged that HyPoint needs further investment to get its technology to market, and he has been talking with prospective backers. He claimed that letters of intent already secured for its fuel cells represent an order book worth around $500,000 while projecting that this could swell greatly to $9 billion within 10 years.
Meanwhile, the company has just begun to further test and validate its technology through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The facility is focusing on developing, integrating, and demonstrating the production, delivery, and storage of hydrogen using fuel cells for transportation, stationary, and portable applications.