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As pioneers reach for hydrogen-powered flight, Washington state loses one

By Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times
Published: June 25, 2023, 6:02am

SEATTLE — On Thursday, the turboprop Dash 8 regional airplane that made a historic first flight in March at Moses Lake with one engine powered by hydrogen will take off from there for the final time and fly away to California.

Universal Hydrogen, the Silicon Valley startup pioneering emissions-free hydrogen-powered flight, is moving its flight tests of the modified de Havilland Canada Dash 8-300 from Moses Lake to Mojave, Calif.

That Dash 8 featured electric motors designed and built by MagniX of Everett.

In another blow to Washington state, Universal’s Chief Technology Officer Mark Cousin made clear in an interview Wednesday at the Paris Air Show that Universal is likely to tap a different supplier for the motor on its modified ATR 72 regional turboprop that it plans to certify to fly passengers before the Dash 8.

Earlier in the week at the Paris Air Show, Gov. Jay Inslee marked several green aviation technology breakthroughs for the state, including expansion of a research facility in Everett for another hydrogen power pioneer, ZeroAvia.

The disappointing news Wednesday that Universal is effectively cutting its ties with the state came amid a series of interviews with executives from Universal, ZeroAvia and from Airbus’s Zero Emissions Aircraft project to assess progress toward hydrogen-powered flight.

Universal is pushing forward with its effort to get the ATR 72 flying and then certified, and has set an optimistic target of 2025 for it to enter service.

ZeroAvia CEO Val Miftakhov listed a long lineup of planes he plans to modify to run on hydrogen and certify for passenger service, starting with a small Cessna Caravan he believes could qualify in 2026, an ATR 72 in 2027 and a large Q400 — a turboprop flown until recently by Alaska Air subsidiary Horizon — in 2028 or 2029.

At the air show, ZeroAvia further announced a study concluding that its technology could scale up to the CRJ regional jets built in Canada.

But that announcement served to reveal serious disagreement between these two hydrogen pioneers over whether the fuel-cell technology they use can scale up to jet-size aircraft.

In addition, the two have clashing visions of the logistics and infrastructure needed to get the hydrogen fuel into the fuel tanks of planes.

Glenn Llewellyn, vice president of Zero Emission Aircraft at Airbus, served as a diplomat, speaking only positively of all the options being explored as he laid out in Paris significant progress toward Airbus’ goal of delivering its first hydrogen-powered plane by 2035.

“There is space for all of the solutions which people are discussing,” he said in an interview. “I wouldn’t push one against the other.”

Llewellyn leads a team of hundreds of engineers exploring two parallel technology tracks for hydrogen-powered flight, one using electricity from hydrogen fuel cells, the other burning hydrogen directly in a gas turbine jet engine.

Airbus has now completed a proof-of-concept study of hydrogen combustion in a jet engine and Llewellyn said it is “actively preparing our future hydrogen combustion demonstrator” with engine maker CFM.

On the other track, he said Airbus has now successfully operated a fuel cell at 1.2 megawatts.

“That’s the most powerful fuel cell tests ever achieved in aviation so far, anywhere in the world,” Llewellyn said.

He added that six such fuel cells would be enough to power the 100-seat regional aircraft concept Airbus put forward in 2020.

“We for sure have plenty more to do,” Llewellyn said of the 2035 target for having a hydrogen plane ready. “What we have is a high level of confidence that we can achieve our ambition based on the work we’ve done so far.”

Moving on

Universal’s Dash 8 will make four or five hops to get to Mojave. CTO Cousins laid out the reasons why.

“Moses Lake is difficult for us to get to. It’s difficult for us to get to as a team. It’s difficult for us to take customers and investors,” he said “Mojave is two hours by road from Hawthorne ( Calif.) where we’re based. It’s 30 minutes in a Cessna.”

He said for its first product to market, the ATR 72, which will be configured with 56 seats rather than the 40 on the Dash 8, it needs a large 2 megawatt electric motor.

“MagniX don’t have a 2 megawatt solution and are not going to have the resources to do that at the moment,” he said.

It’s possible that MagniX could supply several of its smaller motors driving into a gearbox, he said.

But the preferred option would be either a single large 2 megawatt motor, or several high speed electric motors, such as the 1 megawatt motor from Collins Aerospace driving into a gearbox. The MagniX motor is not high speed, he noted.

Chris Green, an economic development official with the Washington Department of Commerce in Paris with the state delegation, said development of hydrogen-propelled flight will continue in the state.

He said the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association has applied to the U.S. Department of Energy for $1.25 billion to promote hydrogen technology.

Meanwhile, Universal will forge ahead elsewhere with its plans.

It is working to create an infrastructure to distribute hydrogen in tanks the size of standard air cargo containers that will be trucked to airports and swapped out for empty ones inside the modified aircraft.

In Toulouse, France, the home of turboprop maker ATR, which is half owned by Airbus, Universal is working with ATR to develop the airplane modifications and the smooth swapping of the modular tanks into and out of the aircraft.

Because regional airline Amelia, already a customer of Universal, flies between Paris and small airports in southern France, Universal is exploring the logistics of trucking hydrogen to those airports.

A clash of ideas

Like Universal, ZeroAvia will power planes with hydrogen fuel cells. But CEO Miftakhov has an entirely different vision of how the hydrogen gets to the planes.

ZeroAvia envisages airports setting up hydrogen production plants on site — electrolyzers to produce hydrogen gas from electricity and water, and liquefiers to turn it into liquid hydrogen — with the transmission grid supplying the electricity.

The hydrogen would be made right there, where planes modified with integral hydrogen fuel tanks, not removable ones, would fill up.

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Miftakhov said software controls can ensure that the electricity is siphoned off the grid at off-peak times when renewable power sources such as solar, wind and hydro are cheap.

He said otherwise utilities would be forced to turn off their renewable energy sources to avoid excess power.

Miftakhov said Palm Springs will likely be the first airport to set up such a hydrogen production plant and Everett will be ZeroAvia’s first location for retrofitting aircraft.

Universal dismisses this plan outright.

“Having electrolyzers and liquefying at all regional airports is just a dream,” said Pierre Farjounel, general manager of Universal in Europe. “This will not exist in the next 30 years.”

CTO Cousin there are only about six hydrogen production sites across the whole of Europe today. An enormous investment would be needed to add them at thousands of airports.

In any case, he said, most airports don’t have the space.

In addition, he said because liquid hydrogen flows much more slowly than jet fuel, it takes longer to fuel aircraft tanks, and low-cost carriers couldn’t do the fast turnarounds they depend on. Filling a tank could take more than an hour. And he questioned the ability of the transmission lines to carry a great deal of extra power to an airport.

For his part, Miftakhov commented derisively on Universal’s plan: “That’s a whole lot of trucking.”

The problem with this clash of ideas is that a plane modified for one method of distribution couldn’t fill up at an airport set up for the other.

And there’s one other major point of dispute: While Miftakhov talks freely of using fuel cells to power planes as large and fast as regional jets, basing that on development of more powerful high temperature fuel cells not yet available.

“The ATR 72 is about the biggest airplane that you could build with today’s fuel cell technology,” Cousin said. “We don’t believe you go any bigger than that.”

France-based independent aviation analyst Bjorn Fehrm of Leeham.net shares Universal’s view.

He said talk of powering a CRJ regional jet that flies fast and at high altitude with a fuel cell is not realistic. Limitations of power and cooling requirements, he said, mean fuel cells are suitable only for turboprops that fly lower and slower than jets.

Llewellyn made that point at the Airbus briefing, when he said that “if we go with the fuel cell propulsion system it’s likely that we would need to accept a propeller-powered aircraft speed.”

Fehrm also favors Universal’s plan for hydrogen distribution to airports as practical and smart.

“ZeroAvia and Universal are both really good technical companies,” Fehrm said. “But Universal sticks to what is feasible.”

Where is the hydrogen

Stepping back from those details, one large question for the future hydrogen economy is whether there be enough green hydrogen.

If the electricity that produced the hydrogen is not sourced from renewable energy, the whole endeavor ceases to be good for the climate.

“If we had a zero-emissions aircraft outside the door today, it’s probably no use to anybody because the green hydrogen wouldn’t be available, said Llewellyn.

But it is encouraging, he said, that lots of investment is pouring into production projects.

“We see a very dynamic ecosystem in terms of new players, as well as some of the more established players, going into that business to produce hydrogen,” he said.

“It’s going to happen in phases, and we can actually have quite a lot of aircraft operating with a fairly minimum amount of airports equipped,” he said.

Llewellyn cited a figure of 150 airports equipped for hydrogen fuel satisfying about a dozen years of aircraft deliveries.

“Being able to fly aircraft with zero CO2 and maybe even close to zero climate impact, is a massive prize at the end, and one that we believe it’s worth continuing to significantly invest in.” he said.