Iceland's national carrier, Icelandair, is now part of a small group of airlines planning to experiment with hydrogen fuel as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Recently, the carrier signed a letter of intent with US-based company Universal Hydrogen to convert an unspecified number of planes in its fleet into hydrogen fuel-powered vehicles.
Founded just last year, Universal Hydrogen believes that as the most efficient energy carrier, hydrogen is the only viable and scalable solution for decarbonizing aviation, an industry that has proven difficult to turn environmentally friendly.
According to the company, the lack of reliable infrastructure has been the greatest challenge to the wide-scale adoption of hydrogen fuels in the industry. They aim to address this by using a modular capsule technology concept to deliver the notoriously flammable fuel safely.
In an interview with Reuters, Universal Hydrogen CEO Paul Eremenko compared the concept to how Nespresso revolutionized the coffee market. By packing the fuel in large capsules that can be transported using conventional freight networks, the company wants to circumvent the lengthy processes of building hydrogen-supportive infrastructure at existing airports. These capsules will be loaded onto aircraft for flights and replaced when empty, eliminating the need to develop and maintain safety protocols for the fuel at airports.
To increase the rate of adoption by airlines, the company is also developing a conversion kit that can be adapted to existing aircraft, eliminating the need to develop hydrogen-compatible airplanes from scratch. The kit consists of a fuel cell and a hydrogen-electric powertrain that will power the existing propellers, improve performance, save costs, and reduce carbon emissions.
As per the LOI, Universal Hydrogen will begin working with DHC-8 (commonly known as DASH8) planes. While the proposed retrofitting reduces the carrying capacity of the planes from 56 to 40 seats, it offers a greener method of traveling.
The company expects the additional cost of retrofitting planes incurred by the airlines to be offset by the cost savings made over a period of time by the use of hydrogen fuel that it will supply through long-term contracts.
Apart from Icelandair, Spanish Air Nostrum and RavnAlaska have also signed LOIs for retrofitting a small number of aircraft in their fleet.
Decarbonizing air travel has been a major incentive for innovators and companies such as ZeroAvia, which also uses hydrogen in its approach. Among the bigger names in the industry is Airbus, which is aiming for zero-carbon aviation by 2035.