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21 September 2022

Universal Hydrogen is getting ready for take-off… literally

By Bogdan Avramuta

Universal Hydrogen, a California based aerospace company, is paving the way forward for hydrogen within aviation with the first test flight of its technology. A 1MW electric power unit will be ran by a fuel cell fed with green hydrogen from a proprietary pressurised tank. All on board a De Havilland Dash 8 aircraft.

Regarded as one of the most promising start-ups in not only the hydrogen sector, but also the aviation industry, Universal Hydrogen has recognized the importance of this energy carrier and the role it can play in replacing kerosene, or Jet A fuel, as the industry calls it.

The company’s business case, in the long term, relies on building a global infrastructure that will see its proprietary green hydrogen tanks be distributed to airports and later used by short haul electric aircraft in order to achieve zero emission flights.

To prove this technology and show the world that planes can run on this fuel, Universal Hydrogen has worked since its formation in 2020, on retrofitting a De Havilland Dash 8 short haul, low altitude airliner, with two 2MW electric motors, a 2.4MW fuel cell that powers them and green hydrogen tanks.

The test flight, due to take place in the coming weeks, will see the Dash 8 use one of its typical Pratt & Whitney PW100 turboprop engines which runs on Jet A fuel and only one 1MW MagniX magni650 electric power unit that will be powered by a Plug Power fuel cell supplied with green hydrogen from a gaseous hydrogen tank. After successful ground tests, Universal Hydrogen is now looking to gather data on the electric power unit and the pressurised tank in a more realistic flight scenario.

Co-founder and CEO, Paul Eremenko, a former Airbus CTO, moved on from the colossal European aircraft manufacturer as he felt Airbus was taking too much time to move towards electrification. A small detail that didn’t surprise us given the state of the industry.

The path that the aviation industry takes is heavily dictated by four giants: Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and General Electric. Together with oil majors like Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron, who make big promises about SAF (sustainable aviation fuel) – promises that we are reluctant to trust given their track record of honesty – which have pushed the entire industry to a very confused state. In such a world, the work of start-ups like Universal Hydrogen and ZeroAvia playing ever more crucial roles in the implementation of hydrogen into the transportation sector.

The proprietary design of Universal Hydrogen is revolving around a pressurised tank aimed to be fully certified for use in commercial flights in the coming years. The company has been working on tanks that can store hydrogen both in gaseous and liquid forms. The advantage of hydrogen in gas form is that it’s much easier to store and has a longer shelf life but its volumetric specific energy (energy per unit volume) is much lower than for liquid hydrogen, even when compressed. But in order to store liquid hydrogen, the tank needs to have a very high thermal efficiency and not allow its contents to absorb outside heat. With a boiling point of minus 252.9°C, liquid hydrogen tanks have a much shorter shelf life, but Universal Hydrogen claims to have achieved 100 hours of dormancy time which means that its fuel needs to be used within about four days from production otherwise the liquid will turn to gas – a good enough time frame for now.

According to Universal Hydrogen, 98% of flights fulfilled by ATR aircraft, one of the more popular regional aircraft manufacturers, are under 650 km. Data that is largely aligned with our own assessment of the industry, which shows that around half of all commercial flights sit under 1,000 km distance per flight. A slightly ambitious target for electric planes in the present day, but more than achievable in the long term. This highlights the potential that hydrogen has in this industry.

Universal Hydrogen has also just announced a partnership with DAT, a Danish airline operator and Everfuel, a green hydrogen provider, that will see them working together on bringing into service a 56 seater, ATR 72-600 aircraft that will run regional flights in Denmark on 100% green hydrogen. DAT also plans to convert its entire fleet to hydrogen by 2030.

With the price of aircraft fuel expected to increase due to carbon taxes, the costs of SAF production, the volatile price of crude oil, and with LCOH (levelized cost of hydrogen) expected to decrease due to heavy investment in the industry and technological advancements, it will soon be more economical to fly electric. A more in-depth analysis of the aviation industry can be accessed in our 2050 aviation industry forecast which is coming out in October.