Hydrogen-powered flights aim to go commercial by 2025

Startups are also solving logistical problems of hydrogen usage so that the transition can happen smoothly and swiftly.
Ameya Paleja
Hydrogen powered airplanes could ferry passengers as early as 2025
Hydrogen powered airplanes could ferry passengers as early as 2025

Universal Hydrogen 

The aviation sector could witness a significant decarbonization effort very soon as hydrogen-powered aircraft are inching closer to reality. Startups engaged in this area have been regularly conducting test flights and could see a commercial flight as early as 2025, reports suggest.

Countries worldwide have focused on the electrification of road transport and pushed for a switch to electric vehicles within the next decade. However, aviation which accounts for nearly two percent of global emissions, remains outside the scope of electrification mandates due to limited technological developments.

Battery-powered flights have severe limitations of range and capacity and cannot replace fossil fuels in medium to long-haul flights. Hydrogen, on the other hand, packs a higher energy density and can potentially replace fossil fuels while severely reducing carbon emissions.

Hydrogen-powered flights

Instead of burning hydrogen as a fuel inside the jet engine, startups have taken a fuel cell approach where it is used to generate electricity that powers propellers instead. Currently, the approach does not generate enough electricity to power a sizeable single-aisle plane across the oceans but does enough to fly about 60 passengers over a few hundred miles.

Los Angeles, California-based Universal Hydrogen's plane dubbed Lightning McClean made its first flight recently and reached an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,500 m) MSL. One of the engines on this Dash 8 aircraft has been retrofitted with a hydrogen-powered powertrain which includes a 1.2-megawatt fuel cell and 800-kilowatt electric motor.

For the test flight, the other engine continued to be powered by fossil fuel for safety reasons, but its output is reduced to allow the plane to fly solely on hydrogen power. Subsequent flights have lasted for more than an hour.

Another California-based company, ZeroAvia, is experimenting with a 19-seater aircraft but has registered more than 10 flights already and has tie-ups with American Airlines and United Airlines to take this to the market.

Small but still a big deal

In the short term, the aviation industry is looking at alternatives like sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which can be made from ingredients like cooking oil, carbon dioxide, and other feedstock. The approach looks to recycle carbon instead of burning new fossil fuels but has contributed to 0.1 percent of the energy needs of major US airlines last year.

The use of hydrogen as a fuel promises a carbon-free way to fly, as long as it is sourced using renewable sources of energy. Even then, the aircraft that eventually use this technology account for only one percent of global traffic. So, should these companies really bother?

Experts are of the view that smaller aircraft are likely to be the future of aviation, allowing individuals to fly to nearby destinations within cities or perhaps even to and from airport terminals.

Work done in the area could help develop larger aircraft to ferry hundreds of passengers on carbon-free flights. Moreover, the companies are also trying to solve the logistics of fueling future flights with hydrogen.

Universal Hydrogen's retrofitting electric powertrain, for instance, uses capsules that store liquid hydrogen and can be moved between production facilities and the aircraft, negating the need to develop refueling infrastructure at existing airports.

Both companies are confident that commercial operations of their hydrogen-powered flights could happen as early as 2025.

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