A rather peculiar flight in Washington state last week has put Universal Hydrogen on the global map. The plane, pictured above, was airborne – powered by two engines. One engine, on the left side of the aircraft, burned normal jet fuel.
However, what stood out was the engine on the right side of the plane, which was powered by an electric motor and not from batteries as you may have expected, but from hydrogen carried on the plane.
Universal Hydrogen Successfully Trials Electric-Powered Aircraft
Although Universal Hydrogen’s aircraft is not the first one to fly on hydrogen, it is certainly the biggest to have achieved this great milestone. Normal engines using jet fuel to produce thrust emit carbon dioxide and other particulate matter that cause pollution.
On the other hand, hydrogen systems produce only water and heat as waste products. Hydrogen research has increased recently amid the race to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which are the biggest contributors to global warming.
With the world quickly becoming a global village, bolstered by a spike in globalization, there is a need to find renewable energy sources that are clean and safe for our planet. According to a report by the American Chemical Society, the hydrogen market is expected to grow to surpass $260 billion by 2029.
The Aviation industry is said to be responsible for approximately 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Although this may seem significantly low, the auto industry continues to make significant steps with electric vehicles.
There’s a global outcry to build aircraft that are less harmful to the planet with the airline industry expected to triple by 2050. For this reason, aircraft manufacturers are in a race to build engines that run off batteries. Hydrogen fuel cells are coming up strongly among other synthetic aviation fuels currently being studied.
The chief technical officer of Universal Hydrogen, Mark Cousin confirmed that last week’s flight was accomplished by the “biggest aircraft to have ever flown on hydrogen fuel cells.”
More awesome footage of our first test flight of the world's largest hydrogen fuel cell powered airliner last week (yes it's green hydrogen, no it's not the Hindenburg) pic.twitter.com/8VCkNcMmVx
— Paul Eremenko (@PaulEremenko) March 6, 2023
How Hydrogen-Powered Engines Work
The aircraft carried jet fuel for the left engine in the wings as is the norm while hydrogen for the right engine was carried in tanks at the back of the plane and in a gaseous form.
It is not possible to carry hydrogen in the wings of an aircraft because Cousin said: “it was taking up probably about a third of the fuselage length.” Hydrogen is then sent to the right engine, where all the magic is expected to occur.
This hydrogen is then mixed with compressed air in the nacelle hanging off the wing with stacks of fuel cells. Electricity generated by six groups of fuel cells powers the motor. These stacks consist of multiple fuel cells, in hundreds, working together to produce the necessary amount of electricity.
Fuel cells are passive devices with no moving parts, according to Cousin. This means the power they produce is in DC form and must then be passed through an inverter to create the AC power needed for the motors.
Although last week’s flight took off with hybrid power generated by the hydrogen engine on the right and the jet fuel engine on the left, once it was airborne, the pilot switched off the left engine and “flew almost exclusively on the right-hand engine,” amid noticeable silence as per a report by Seattle Times.
The aircraft, a modified Dash 8-300, carried only three people on this maiden test flight, although it is certified to hold roughly 50 individuals. Airborne for approximately 15 minutes, the plane was flying at about 2,300 feet above the ground.
After completing two loops going around the airfield, the hydrogen-powered aircraft made a “very, very smooth landing” according to Cousin.
What’s Next For Universal Hydrogen
Universal Hydrogen, the company behind the hybrid Dash 8-300, is working on a way to store hydrogen in liquid form aboard the aircraft in a bid to save on the space taken up by the gaseous fuel.
However, this milestone is set to test their capabilities to the extreme because liquified hydrogen is stored under extremely cold temperatures. At the same time, the liquid must be converted back to its gaseous form before being sent to the fuel cells.
Universal Hydrogen hopes to have found a way to carry hydrogen in liquid form before it makes another flight in the same plane, this time completely powered by hydrogen cells by the end of the year.
“We think that hydrogen fuel is really the only viable solution for short- and medium-range airplanes,” Cousin said.
As mentioned, many other companies have also been pushing the limits to ensure that the aviation industry transitions from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. A plane powered by a battery dubbed Alice was able to make a successful flight in the same Washing state in September 2022. Joby Aviation and Beta Technologies are a few other firms working on smaller aircraft powered by electric batteries.
Larger aircraft manufacturers like Airbus are also dipping their toes into research to tap hydrogen as an engine propellant. Airbus said in February 2022 that it had plans to fly a hydrogen-powered A380 aircraft.
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