The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Plug Power and Universal Hydrogen Step Up Plans to Convert Airliners to Green Fuel

Plug Power has become a minority shareholder in Universal Hydrogen, expanding its partnership with the start-up to provide hydrogen propulsion for aircraft. The initial $1 million investment, with an option to increase that amount, should allow Universal Hydrogen to meet its goal of completing the construction of a subscale hydrogen powertrain during the second quarter of this year.

In September 2020, the companies announced a partnership to develop hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion systems to power converted regional airliners. The U.S. companies intend to build and test a full-scale ground-based prototype for a two-megawatt hydrogen-electric powertrain that they intend to have ready for retrofitting under a supplemental type certificate (STC) by 2024.

Now they are expanding their alliance with a global supply agreement for Plug Power to distribute hydrogen supplies to aircraft. Initially, the company will supply around 500 tons of hydrogen each day from five distribution points across the U.S. by 2024. This volume is roughly equivalent to a million gallons of jet-A fuel. The first confirmed locations for the storage facilities include Rochester, New York; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Fort Worth.

“When you think about renewable [fuels] at four cents per kilowatt-hour, it’s clear that green hydrogen can be produced at prices equivalent to or below [the cost of] fossil fuel in the near term,” said Andy Marsh, Plug Power’s CEO. “Universal Hydrogen’s approach is a pragmatic, near-term plan to bring green hydrogen to one of the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors—air travel.”

Plug Power has extensive experience in developing hydrogen fuel cell stack technology for e-mobility applications, including fork-lift trucks and other ground vehicles. The customer base for its ProGen systems includes BMW, Renault, Amazon, Walmart, Carrefour, and Southern Company. In 2019, the company acquired EnergyOr, which makes lightweight fuel cells for drones.

Universal Hydrogen and Plug Power’s engineering teams will first test the subscale powertrain on the ground before retrofitting the equipment into a 40- to 60-seat regional aircraft, such as the Dash 8 or the ATR42. Test flights are due to begin in 2023, with a target date for initial commercial operations in 2025.

Universal Hydrogen’s concept of operation is based on using refillable hydrogen capsules delivered directly from fuel-production facilities to the aircraft. The company, which was founded in early 2020 by former Airbus chief technology officer Paul Eremenko, says that the propulsion systems would be able to support routes of up to around 1,000 km (633 miles) with 40 passengers. It maintains that its approach avoids the prohibitive infrastructure costs that would be associated with supplying carbon-free fuel to aircraft via ships, pipelines, and trucks.

The hydrogen capsules will be loaded into the rear of the aircraft and placed in a compartment replacing the last two rows of passenger seats. Plumbing lines will run from the capsules through the aircraft’s dorsal fins into each of the two nacelles where fuel cells and electric motors would be installed to power the aircraft’s existing propellers.

“The global supply agreement [with Plug Power] for green hydrogen will enable us to deliver modular fuel capsules to airline operators at a price that gives them equivalent unit economics to a conventional jet fuel-powered regional aircraft in 2025, with additional operating cost savings as the cost of hydrogen continues to decrease,” Eremenko said. 

According to Marsh, in any sector, there is a better chance that operators will agree to switch to hydrogen if they are assured a turnkey solution. This needs to include the fuel cell powertrain and also an assured supply chain for the fuel.