The 15-minute test flight of a modified Dash-8 aircraft, a Universal Hydrogen-branded plane, was short but it achieved a new golden age of aviation. It was equipped with the largest hydrogen fuel cell ever to power any aircraft.
The maiden test flight in eastern Washington showed that hydrogen can be viable as a fuel for short-hop passenger aircraft. This is possible if Universal Hydrogen and others in the emerging world of hydrogen flight can make the technical and regulatory progress needed to make it a mainstream product.
Nicknamed Lightning McClean, the Universal Hydrogen test aircraft, had two pilots, an engineer and a lot of tech onboard, including an electric motor and hydrogen fuel cell. Dash-8s are usually used in regional airports to transport up to 50 passengers on short trips.
But the test aircraft contained two racks of electronics and sensors and two large hydrogen tanks with 30 kg of fuel. An electric motor from magniX, beneath the plane’s right wing, was driven by the new hydrogen fuel cell from Plug Power which turns hydrogen into electricity and water.
Future of Aviation
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Paul Eremenko, the co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen Co., believes the emission-free powerplant represents the future of aviation. He said the fuel cell operated throughout the flight, generated up to 800kW of power and produced only water vapor and smiles on the faces of a crowd of Universal Hydrogen engineers and investors. “We think it’s a pretty monumental accomplishment. It keeps us on track to have probably the first certified hydrogen airplane in passenger service.”
Michael Bockler, one of the test pilots, said the aircraft flew like a normal Dash-8, with just a slight yaw. He shared that at one point, in level flight, the plane flew almost entirely on fuel cell power, with the turboprop engine throttled down. A senior engineer pointed out that it’s still just a show until and unless both motors are driven by hydrogen. “But I don’t want to scoff at it because we need these stepping stones to learn.”
Experts say jet engines run much hotter, and expel most of that heat through their exhausts. However, fuel cells use an electrochemical reaction. As such, the waste heat is removed through a system of heat exchanges and vents.
Universal Hydrogen plans to conduct more tests at Moses Lake. It will work on additional software development and convert the plane to use liquid hydrogen. The company hopes to start shipping fuel cell conversion kits for regional aircraft like the Dash-8 as soon as 2025. Universal Hydrogen already has 250 retrofit orders valued at more than $1 billion from 16 customers, including Air New Zealand.