On Thursday, the turboprop Dash 8 regional plane, which made its historic first flight over Moses Lake last March on a single hydrogen engine, will take off from there for the final time and fly to California.
Universal Hydrogen, a Silicon Valley startup pioneering zero-emissions hydrogen-powered flight, is moving a modified de Havilland Canada Dash 8-300 flight test from Moses Lake to Mojave, California.
The Dash 8 features an electric motor designed and built by Everett’s MagniX.
In another blow to the state of Washington, Universal’s chief technology officer Mark Cousin said in an interview at the Paris Air Show on Wednesday that Universal will likely utilize another supplier for the motors for its modified ATR 72 regional turboprop, which it plans to certify for flight. I made it clear. Passengers prior to Dash 8.
At the Paris Air Show earlier this week, Governor Jay Inslee announced several green aviation technology innovations for the state, including an expansion of a research facility in Everett for another hydrogen-powered pioneer, ZeroAvia.
The disappointing news that Universal is effectively cutting ties with the state on Wednesday comes amid a series of interviews with executives from Universal, ZeroAvia and Airbus’s Zero Emissions Aircraft project assessing progress toward hydrogen-powered flight.
Universal is moving forward with efforts to fly and certify the ATR 72, and has set an optimistic target of 2025 to enter service.
ZeroAvia’s CEO Val Miftakhov believes the small Cessna Caravan could qualify in 2026, the ATR 72 in 2027 and the large Q400 (turboprop flying in 2028 or 2029, until recently by Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon.
At the airshow, ZeroAvia presented further research showing that its technology could be extended to the Canadian-built CRJ regional jet.
But the announcement served to expose serious disagreements between these two hydrogen pioneers over whether the fuel cell technology they use could be scaled up to jet-sized aircraft.
Additionally, the two men have conflicting visions of the logistics and infrastructure needed to fuel the plane’s fuel tanks with hydrogen.
Glenn Llewellyn, Vice President of Airbus Zero-Emissions Division, is positive about all options being explored while serving as a diplomat, marking significant progress towards Airbus’ goal of delivering its first hydrogen-powered airplane by 2035 in Paris. said only
“There is room for all the solutions people are discussing,” he said in an interview. “I’m not going to push each other.”
Llewellyn is leading a team of hundreds of engineers exploring two parallel technology tracks for hydrogen-powered flight, one using electricity from hydrogen fuel cells and the other burning hydrogen directly from gas turbine jet engines.
Airbus has now completed proof-of-concept studies on hydrogen combustion in jet engines, and Llewellyn said they are “actively preparing future hydrogen combustion demonstration devices” with engine manufacturer CFM.
On another track, he said Airbus has now successfully run a fuel cell at 1.2 megawatts.
“This is the most robust fuel cell test ever achieved in aviation anywhere in the world,” said Llewellyn.
He added that six such fuel cells would be enough to power the 100-seat regional aircraft concept presented by Airbus in 2020.
“There is definitely more work to be done,” Llewellyn said of the goal of having a hydrogen plane ready in 2035. “What we have is a high level of confidence that we can achieve our ambitions based on what we have done so far.”
Universal’s Dash 8 makes four to five hops to reach Mojave. CTO Cousins explained why.
“Moses Lake is difficult for us to access. It’s hard for us to go as a team. It’s hard to take in customers and investors,” he said. “Mojave is a two hour drive from Hawthorne (California) where we are based. With Cessna, 30 minutes is enough.”
For the ATR 72, the first product that will have 56 seats rather than the Dash 8’s 40, he said, a large 2-megawatt electric motor is needed.
“MagniX doesn’t have a 2-megawatt solution, and they probably don’t have the resources to do that right now,” he said.
He said that MagniX can supply several small motors driven by gearboxes.
However, the preferred option is a single large 2-megawatt motor or multiple high-speed electric motors, such as Collins Aerospace’s 1-megawatt motor driven by a gearbox. MagniX motors are not high speed.
Chris Green, an economic development official at the Washington Department of Commerce in Paris with a state delegation, said hydrogen-powered flight development will continue in the state.
He said the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association has applied for $1.25 billion from the US Department of Energy to promote hydrogen technology.
Meanwhile, Universal is going ahead with its plans elsewhere.
It is working to build infrastructure for dispensing hydrogen in tanks the size of standard air cargo containers that will be trucked to airports and replaced with empty containers inside modified aircraft.
In Toulouse, France, home to turboprop manufacturer ATR, which is half-owned by Airbus, Universal is working with ATR on aircraft modifications and seamless replacement of modular tanks in and out of the aircraft.
Regional airline Amelia, already a Universal customer, flies between Paris and a small airport in the south of France, so Universal is looking at logistics to get the hydrogen to that airport.
clash of ideas
Like Universal, ZeroAvia will power its planes with hydrogen fuel cells. But CEO Miftakhov has a completely different vision for how hydrogen will get to airplanes.
ZeroAvia envisions an on-site hydrogen production plant, including an electrolyzer that produces hydrogen gas from electricity and water, and a liquefaction unit that converts it to liquid hydrogen, and the airport will supply electricity via the grid.
Hydrogen will be made right where airplanes retrofitted with integrated hydrogen fuel tanks rather than removable fuel tanks can be refueled.
Miftakhov said software control could ensure electricity is pulled off the grid during off-peak hours when renewable power sources such as solar, wind and hydro are cheaper.
He said otherwise utilities would have to turn off renewable energy sources to avoid excessive power.
Miftakhov said Palm Springs would be the first airport to set up such a hydrogen production plant, while Everett would be ZeroAvia’s first location for aircraft modifications.
Universal dismisses this plan outright.
“Having electrolyzers and liquefiers at every regional airport is a dream come true,” said Pierre Farjounel, General Manager, Universal Europe. “This won’t exist for another 30 years.”
CTO Cousin now has around six hydrogen production plants across Europe. Adding this to thousands of airports would require significant investments.
Most airports don’t have space anyway, he said.
He also said that because liquid hydrogen flows much slower than jet fuel, it takes longer to refuel aircraft tanks and low-cost airlines cannot make the quick switchovers they rely on. It may take an hour or more to fill the tank. And he questioned the transmission line’s ability to provide the airport with significant additional power.
Miftakhov scoffed at Universal’s plan, saying, “That’s a lot of trucking.”
The problem with this clash of ideas is that planes modified for one deployment method cannot populate at airports set up for another deployment method.
And here’s another major point of contention. Miftakhov talks freely about using fuel cells to power airplanes as big and fast as regional jets, but it builds on the development of more powerful high-temperature fuel cells that are not yet available.
“The ATR 72 is about the biggest airplane you can build with today’s fuel cell technology,” said Cousin. “We don’t believe you do anything greater than that.”
Leeham.net’s independent French aviation analyst Bjorn Fehrm shares Universal’s view.
He said the story of fuel cells powering fast, high-flying CRJ regional jets isn’t realistic. Limitations in power and cooling requirements mean that fuel cells are only suitable for turboprops that fly lower and slower than jets, he said.
Llewellyn made that point at an Airbus briefing when he said, “If you’re going to use a fuel cell propulsion system, you probably have to accept the speed of a propeller-powered aircraft.”
Fehrm also favors Universal’s plan for distributing hydrogen to airports as practical and sensible.
“ZeroAvia and Universal are both really great technology companies,” said Fehrm. “However, Universal sticks to what is feasible.”
where is the hydrogen
Stepping away from these details, one big question for the hydrogen economy of the future is whether there will be enough green hydrogen.
All efforts are bad for the climate if the electricity to produce hydrogen isn’t sourced from renewable sources.
Llewellyn said, “If there is a zero-emissions aircraft out our door today, it will be of no use to anyone because we cannot use green hydrogen.
However, he said it is encouraging that there is a lot of investment being poured into production projects.
“We are seeing a very dynamic ecosystem in terms of new players as well as existing players entering that business to produce hydrogen,” he said.
“It’s going to happen step by step, and we can actually operate quite a few aircraft with minimal airports,” he said.
Llewellyn cited figures for 150 airports equipped with hydrogen fuel that would satisfy approximately 12 years of aircraft delivery.
“Being able to fly an aircraft with zero CO2 and very little climate impact is, after all, a huge reward and I think it’s worth continuing to make a significant investment.” he said.
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