Largest fuel-cell-powered aircraft to date has made successful first flight

Universal Hydrogen’s modified Dash 8 testbed aircraft

Universal Hydrogen’s modified Dash 8 testbed aircraft

Photo by Universal Hydrogen

24th March 2023

By: Rebecca Campbell

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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A new record has been set for the largest aircraft yet to be flown with a hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system. The new record was set by US company Universal Hydrogen, using a modified 40- passenger De Havilland Canada Dash 8 regional airliner. The previous record, involving a 19-seater aircraft, modified by a UK-US company, was set only six weeks previously.

The Dash 8 is normally powered by two turboprop engines, but the testbed aircraft had one of these removed and replaced with a Universal Hydrogen megawatt-class fuel-cell-electric powertrain. The aircraft took off from Grant County International Airport, at Moses Lake, in the US state of Washington (not to be confused with Washington DC). The flight lasted 15 minutes and the aircraft achieved an altitude of 3 500 ft (1 066.8 m) above mean sea level.

“During the second circuit over the airport, we were comfortable with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain, so we were able to throttle back on the fossil fuel turbine engine to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power,” reported Universal Hydrogen chief test pilot Alex 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 core of the company’s powertrain was the ProGen family of fuel cells, from Plug Power, but modified for use in aircraft. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, the Universal Hydrogen powertrains did not use a battery; the fuel cell directly drove the electric motor, an approach which reduced both weight and cost. The electric motor was an adapted magniX magni650 unit, and magniX also supplied the power electronics. Design, engineering, installation, integration and modification activities were assisted by AeroTEC.

Universal Hydrogen has also developed modular ‘capsules’ to carry the hydrogen fuel. These can be transported using existing freight networks and can then be loaded straight onto an aircraft and plugged into its propulsion system, thereby becoming the aeroplane’s fuel tanks.

“Our business model solves the chicken-and-egg problem between hydrogen airplanes and hydrogen infrastructure by developing both in parallel and with a uniquely low-cost approach,” highlighted company co-founder and CEO Paul Eremenko. “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 fuelling uses modular capsules compatible with existing freight networks and airport cargo handling equipment, making every airport in the world hydrogen-ready.”

Universal Hydrogen already has an aircraft conversion order backlog covering 247 aeroplanes, from 16 customers, worth more than $1-billion. It also has a fuel services order backlog worth $2-billion.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor




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