US startup successfully completes test flight of largest hydrogen-powered airplane

The 40-seater ATR 72 was primarily flown on hydrogen fuel for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 MSL. 
Jijo Malayil
Universal Hydrogen's test flight
Universal Hydrogen's test flight

Universal Hydrogen  

In what can be termed a milestone in furthering a sustainable future in aviation, a 40-seat passenger plane powered by a hydrogen fuel cell was successfully tested by Universal Hydrogen. The company claimed it flew the airplane from the Grant County International Airport in Washington, primarily on hydrogen fuel, for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 MSL. 

The startup based in Lon Angeles had altered the plane's (ATR 72) powertrain by replacing one of its two turbine motors with a hydrogen fuel-cell electric engine. As a result, the pilot could minimize using the conventional engine during the flight. 

The startup plans to decarbonize aviation to help it to meet the Paris Agreement obligations. A few weeks earlier, ZeroAvia, a UK-based startup, had completed the first flight of a 19-seat Dornier 228 testbed aircraft that was converted to run partly on hydrogen fuel cells.  

Universal Hydrogen's retrofit conversion kit for customers 

The company is offering a complete solution to clients to convert existing regional aircraft, starting with the ATR72 and the De Havilland Canada Dash-8, to fly on hydrogen. 

The replacement of the turboprop engine is done with a fuel-cell electric motor built around Plug Power’s ProGen family of fuel cells specially modified for aviation use. "One of the unique aspects of the design is that the powertrain does not use a battery—the fuel cells drive the electric motor directly—drastically reducing weight and cost," said a press release

The retrofit conversion kit eliminates the need to develop a brand-new airplane. The "hydrogen fueling uses modular capsules compatible with existing freight networks and airport cargo handling equipment, making every airport in the world hydrogen-ready," said Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen. 

"By providing both an aircraft conversion solution for the existing fleet and a fuel services offering directly to regional airlines, we will be in passenger service with zero emissions by 2025 and in cargo service shortly after that," said a post on the company website. 

On a two-year roadmap to get final certification

The firm conducted the test with Connect Airlines and Amelia Airlines for a Federal Aviation Authority Special Airworthiness Certificate. According to Universal Hydrogen, the exercise was the first in a two-year flight test campaign expected to be completed in 2025 with entry into passenger service of ATR 72 regional aircraft converted to run on hydrogen. 

“We have committed to being North America’s first zero-emission airline, and this historic flight, taking hydrogen, which can be made with nothing but sunshine and emitting only water, is a key milestone on our journey," said John Thomas, CEO of Connect Airlines

The company claims to have an order book that exceeds 247 aircraft conversions from 16 customers worldwide. The total value is estimated to be over $1 billion in modifications and about $2 billion for hydrogen fuel services for the first ten years.

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