Universal Hydrogen has announced that it has completed a historic test flight of a Dash-8 commuter plane fitted with a hydrogen fuel-cell engine. The test flight lasted for 15 minutes, and the company is committed to being North America’s first zero-emission airline. The power plant of the plane was the largest to ever take to the skies and comprised a fuel cell from Plug Power and an electric motor built by magniX.
The Dash-8 was highly modified to accommodate the fuel-cell hydrogen engine, 30kg of liquid hydrogen, and two racks of electronics and sensors. The turbine engine was mainly used for takeoff, while pilots were able to cruise mostly on hydrogen power during the second circuit. The flight attained a height of 3,500 feet, and although it had some yaw due to the imbalance in power, it was successful. The airplane handled beautifully, and the noise and vibrations from the fuel cell powertrain were significantly lower than from the conventional turbine engine, according to chief pilot Alex Kroll.
Universal Hydrogen hopes to have a certificate for passenger flights by 2025. However, potential problems still abound with hydrogen fuel-cell engines. Hydrogen has about a quarter the energy density of regular jet A fuel, making it only suitable for short hops. Additionally, there is very little hydrogen fuel infrastructure, and it is tricky to work with and extremely explosive.
Despite the challenges, Universal Hydrogen is confident it can beat the odds. Its business model aims to resolve the chicken-and-egg problem between hydrogen airplanes and hydrogen infrastructure by developing both in parallel with a uniquely low-cost approach, according to CEO and co-founder Paul Eremenko.
Other companies, such as ZeroAvia and Airbus, have flown test flights with similar configurations on smaller planes. Rolls-Royce has also completed tests of a jet engine converted to run directly on hydrogen fuel. The aviation industry is exploring hydrogen fuel as a means of achieving zero-emissions aviation via either fuel-cell electric motors or jet engines that burn H2 directly. The successful test flight of Universal Hydrogen’s Dash-8 commuter plane could be a significant step toward achieving that goal.