Universal Hydrogen Co., has just completed the test flight of a 40-passenger regional airliner using hydrogen fuel cell propulsion.
The airplane, a Dash 8 twin turboprop nicknamed Lightning McClean, took off at 8:41am PST yesterday from Grant County International Airport (KMWH) in Washington state and flew for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 MSL.
First test flight
The flight, conducted under an FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate, was the first in a two-year flight test campaign expected to culminate in 2025.
The program should conclude with the entry into passenger service of ATR 72 regional aircraft converted to run on hydrogen.
Representatives from Connect Airlines and Amelia, the US and European launch customers for the hydrogen airplanes, respectively, were on hand to witness the historic flight.
One hydrogen, one conventional
In this first test flight, one of the airplane’s turbine engines was replaced with Universal Hydrogen’s fuel cell-electric, megawatt-class powertrain.
The other remained a conventional engine for safety of flight. The flight was piloted by Alex Kroll, an experienced former U.S. Air Force test pilot and the company’s chief test pilot.
“During the second circuit over the airport, we were comfortable with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain, so we were able to throttle back the fossil fuel turbine engine to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power,” said Kroll.
“The airplane handled beautifully, and the noise and vibrations from the fuel cell powertrain are significantly lower than from the conventional turbine engine.”
The aircraft powertrain is built around Plug Power’s ProGen family of fuel cells specially modified for aviation use.
One of the unique aspects of the design is that the powertrain does not use a battery—the fuel cells drive the electric motor directly—drastically reducing weight and cost.
The motor, a modified magni650 electric propulsion unit, and power electronics were supplied by Everett-based magniX.
Seattle-based AeroTEC assisted with engineering efforts, including design of the modified nacelle structure, aircraft systems design and integration, as well as aircraft modifications and installation of the Universal Hydrogen powertrain onto the flight test aircraft, accomplished in less than 12 months.
Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen said: “The airplanes are converted to hydrogen using an aftermarket retrofit conversion kit, tackling the existing fleet rather than developing a brand-new airplane.”
“And hydrogen fueling uses modular capsules compatible with existing freight networks and airport cargo handling equipment, making every airport in the world hydrogen-ready.”
Today will go down in the history books as the true start to the decarbonization of the global airline industry and we at Connect Airlines are extremely proud of the role that we, as the first US operator, will play in leading the way with Universal Hydrogen,” said John Thomas, CEO of Connect Airlines.
Connect, which will begin regional turboprop service this spring, has placed a first-position US order with Universal Hydrogen to convert 75 ATR 72-600 regional airplanes to hydrogen powertrains with purchase rights for 25 additional aircraft conversions.
Deliveries will start in 2025. “We have committed to being North America’s first zero-emission airline and this historic flight, taking hydrogen, which can be made with nothing but sunshine and emitting only water, is a key milestone on our journey,” continued Thomas.
A320 & B737 as major emitters
“More than half of aviation CO2 emissions today come from the A320 and 737 family of aircraft,” said Eremenko.
“Both Airbus and Boeing will need to replace these venerable airplanes with a new design starting development in the late-2020s and entering passenger service in the mid-2030s.”
“Making their successors hydrogen airplanes is a golden opportunity – perhaps the only opportunity -for aviation to get anywhere near meeting Paris Agreement emissions targets without having to curb aviation traffic volumes.”
About Universal Hydrogen
The company is building a hydrogen logistics network to fuel the future of aviation, today. Hydrogen is the ideal fuel for flight and will power aviation’s new golden age, where planes are powered by renewables and emit nothing but water.
The company’s modular hydrogen capsules move over the existing freight network from production directly to the airplane anywhere in the world.
Universal Hydrogen is also working to certify a powertrain conversion kit to retrofit existing regional aircraft to fly on hydrogen.
The company has a rapidly growing order book, today totaling 247 aircraft conversions from 16 customers worldwide, totaling over $1 billion in conversions backlog and over $2 billion in fuel services over the first ten years of operation.