Hydrogen shows promise for zero-emission aviation, either via fuel cell electric motors or jet engines that burn H2 directly. Now, Universal Hydrogen has announced that it has completed a 15-minute test flight in a 40-seat Dash-8 commuter aircraft powered by a fuel cell hydrogen engine. The company called the flight “historic” and said it was “strongly committed to being North America’s first zero-emissions airline.”
With a fuel cell from Plug Power and an electric motor built by magniX, the power plant is the largest ever lifted into the air. However, it was only installed on the left side of the plane, while a standard Pratt & Whitney turboprop engine was fitted to the right wing for “flight safety” reasons, the company said. It supplied the engines with emission-free “green” hydrogen (produced by electrolysis from renewable energy sources), connected via dedicated modules that keep the volatile gas in liquid form for up to 100 hours.
The Dash-8 was heavily modified to accommodate the engine, 30 kg (66 pounds) of liquid hydrogen, and two racks of electronics and sensors. While the turbine engine was used primarily for takeoff, pilots were able to fly primarily on hydrogen power in the second round. The flight reached an altitude of 3,500 feet.
Although it exhibited some yaw due to the power imbalance, “the aircraft handled beautifully, and the noise and vibration from the fuel cell powertrain is significantly lower than the conventional turbine engine,” said the chief pilot (and former US Air Force test pilot). ) Alex Kroll. The company received FAA approval for the flight just a few weeks ago.
British-American firm ZeroAvia flew a similar configuration earlier this year on its twin-engine, 19-seat Dornier 228. Airbus recently announced it is building a fuel cell that could propel a 100-seat aircraft some 1,150 miles, and Rolls -Royce recently completed testing of a jet engine converted to run directly on hydrogen fuel.
However, potential problems still abound. Hydrogen has about a quarter the energy density of regular Jet-A fuel, so it’s only good for short jumps. And as I detailed in an explainer, there is very little infrastructure for hydrogen fuel, it’s difficult to work with, and it’s extremely explosive. Still, Universal Hydrogen is confident it can beat the odds. “Our business model solves the chicken-and-egg problem between hydrogen aircraft and hydrogen infrastructure by developing both in parallel and with a uniquely cost-effective approach,” said CEO and co-founder Paul Eremenko.
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