Is hydrogen the green aviation fuel of the future? An industry team led by California-based Universal Hydrogen is testing out that proposition amid the scrublands of central Washington state.
Universal Hydrogen is readying its converted De Havilland Dash 8-300 turboprop plane for initial flight tests later this year at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Wash., with an assist from Washington state partners including Seattle-based AeroTEC and Everett-based MagniX.
Last week, Universal Hydrogen announced that it spun up the propeller on the plane’s MagniX-built electric motor powered completely by hydrogen fuel for the first time. This week, “Lightning McClean” is set to start ground testing in earnest.
“We’ll run the powertrain on the ground with the aircraft static … up to maximum power,” Mark Cousin, Universal Hydrogen’s chief technology officer, told GeekWire. “Once we’re happy with the behavior of the system, we will then move into taxi testing and the buildup to flight.”
The timing for the first flight test depends on how well the ground tests go — perhaps within the next few months, if things go exceptionally well.
Universal Hydrogen was founded in 2020 by a group of aviation industry veterans who were frustrated to see how slowly the rest of the industry was moving toward climate-friendly, zero-emission air travel.
“Decarbonization of aviation is really hard,” Cousin said. “We don’t believe it’s going to be done with batteries. And the key market within the aviation business, that produces nearly 60% of aviation emissions, is the single-aisle family of aircraft.”
Aircraft manufacturers have to come up with a plan for the next generation of single-aisle planes by the 2030s.
“What we want to do is demonstrate to their customers, and ultimately to them, that hydrogen is the only really viable zero-emissions fuel for the next generation of short- and medium-range aircraft,” Cousin said.
Hydrogen has gotten a bad rap in the public’s perception of flight safety for decades — arguably starting with the Hindenburg airship disaster in 1937. If you’re working with hydrogen-fueled systems, sooner or later you have to deal with the Hindenburg Question. “The fire that you saw on the Hindenburg is actually not hydrogen burning,” Cousin said when he was asked. “It’s the dope skin around the bags containing the hydrogen.” (That hypothesis is the subject of a long-running debate.)
Cousin then laid out the bigger picture, acknowledging that the characteristics of hydrogen fuel are different from those of aviation-grade kerosene.
“Our whole strategy on hydrogen is just making sure the concentration of hydrogen in any part of the airplane where it might leak never reaches a threshold where it becomes flammable,” he said. “If you don’t have enough hydrogen in the atmosphere, you simply cannot set fire to it.”
Universal Hydrogen’s strategy calls for using modularized capsules — initially containing compressed gas, and eventually containing liquid hydrogen that’s kept super-cold in the same way that drinks are chilled in an insulated picnic cooler. The modular method is meant to minimize the potential for leaks when loading the fuel onto the plane.
Hydrogen is attractive as a zero-emission fuel because when it reacts with oxygen in a fuel cell to produce electricity, the exhaust comes in the form of water. That’s why hydrogen is picking up steam as a fossil-fuel alternative: Toyota and Hyundai are selling hydrogen-powered cars in California, and a French-Moroccan startup called NamX is working on a refillable capsule concept that’s similar to Universal Hydrogen’s, but for cars rather than airplanes.
On the aviation front, California-based ZeroAvia marked a milestone last week with the first hydrogen-powered flight of its converted Dornier 228 airplane — a 10-minute flight test that began and ended at an airfield west of London. ZeroAvia has a research-and-development facility at Everett’s Paine Field, and counts Seattle-based Alaska Airlines among its strategic partners. It also has attracted investments from Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund as well as from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a fund co-founded by Bill Gates.
Cousin said he doesn’t exactly consider ZeroAvia a competitor. For one thing, he points out that ZeroAvia is working on a hybrid hydrogen-battery propulsion system, while Universal Hydrogen is going all-in on hydrogen power. For another thing, Universal Hydrogen’s main focus is on the fuel supply chain rather than the airplanes alone. Cousin compares his company to the Nespresso coffee company, which sells its machines at cost but derives the bulk of its profit from selling the coffee pods that go into the machines.
Because the supply chain is so important, Universal Hydrogen is paying a lot of attention to the sources of its hydrogen. Today, industrial-grade hydrogen gas is typically a byproduct of fossil-fuel production. In contrast, Cousin says his company wants to use solar and wind power to produce “green hydrogen” through water electrolysis. (Another option might be “pink hydrogen,” where nuclear power provides the electricity for electrolysis.)
An Oregon-based company, Obsidian Renewables, is seeking federal support for a multibillion-dollar project that would produce green hydrogen in Moses Lake as well as Hermiston, Ore.
Why Moses Lake?
Universal Hydrogen’s corporate headquarters is in Hawthorne, Calif, and it has a globe-girdling list of strategic investors — including American Airlines, Airbus Ventures, JetBlue, GE Aviation, Mitsubishi HC Capital and Toyota Ventures. The company’s engineering development center is in Toulouse, France, near Airbus’ HQ. So why is it planning to conduct flight tests in central Washington state?
There’s more than one reason to do the testing at Moses Lake’s airport, starting with three key partners.
Everett-based MagniX is providing its Magni650 electric propulsion unit for Universal Hydrogen’s converted Dash 8-300 plane. “This motor that we are flying has more powerful electronics and some further upgrades which allow us to produce 750 kilowatts of power,” Cousin said.
Seattle-based AeroTEC is handling the engineering work for the conversion, while Plug Power — a New York-based company that has a significant operational footprint in Spokane, Wash. — is providing the hydrogen fuel cells.
Both MagniX and AeroTEC are involved in another zero-emission project currently being tested at Moses Lake: the all-electric Alice airplane that’s being developed by Arlington, Wash.-based Eviation. In fact, Universal Hydrogen’s Lightning McClean plane shares a hangar with Alice.
“Moses Lake is a pretty good place to flight test,” Cousin said. “It has a very long runway — originally built, I think, for the development of the B-52. So that’s the reason why we’re flying out of Moses Lake. The flight test facilities here are good.”
For the Moses Lake flight tests, only the right engine of the plane has been converted to hydrogen power. “We keep the Pratt & Whitney engine on the other side,” Cousin explained. “In the case of failure of the hydrogen engine, we can return to land safely with the existing Pratt & Whitney engine.”
Although a Dash 8 is being used for this initial round of tests under an experimental type certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration, Universal Hydrogen’s first target for commercial conversions is the ATR-72, a twin-engine turboprop that’s assembled in Toulouse. The ATR-72 is capable of carrying up to 78 passengers.
“Our current target is to have what’s called a supplemental type certificate, which is a certificate which allows the modification of an existing airplane,” Cousin said. “Our target is to have that ready and certified by the end of 2025.”
Universal Hydrogen already has struck deals with several customers for ATR-72 conversion kits, but the company doesn’t intend to stop there. “We’ll make a business out of converting ATR-72s,” Cousin said. “It’s a good business. But the real aim is to demonstrate to the flying public and the airlines and the customers of Airbus and Boeing that flying aircraft on hydrogen — particularly with this modular solution that we have for getting that hydrogen to the aircraft and loaded onto the aircraft — is a viable solution for that next generation of single-aisle aircraft.”