Aviation-focused hydrogen distribution and logistics network startup Universal Hydrogen announced that it has completed a test flight of a 40-passenger regional airliner using hydrogen fuel cell propulsion

According to the company, the test marked both the largest-ever hydrogen fuel cell powered airplane to fly, and largest airplane to cruise principally on hydrogen.

The aviation industry has come under scrutiny as a significant source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, responsible for 2-3% of global emissions, with that figure potentially rising dramatically over the coming decades if no action is taken. While many initiatives are currently targeting rapid sector decarbonization solutions, such as electrified propulsion or SAF, hydrogen is viewed by some in the industry as a more promising long-term solution, given its potential to be produced through carbon-free methods, and its energy attributes. Hurdles remain, however, to the implementation of hydrogen as an industry solution, including the need to significantly scale up clean hydrogen extraction capacity, and the deployment of distribution infrastructure.

Founded in 2020, Universal Hydrogen is building a hydrogen logistics network using modular hydrogen capsules that are handled like cargo, eliminating the need for the development of new fueling infrastructure at airports, and enabling faster fuel loading operations.

Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen, said:

“Our business model resolves the chicken-and-egg problem between hydrogen airplanes and hydrogen infrastructure by developing both in parallel and with a uniquely low-cost approach. The airplanes are converted to hydrogen using an aftermarket retrofit conversion kit, tackling the existing fleet rather than developing a brand new airplane. And hydrogen fueling uses modular capsules compatible with existing freight networks and airport cargo handling equipment, making every airport in the world hydrogen-ready.”

The company is backed by several high-profile strategic investors, including GE Aviation, Airbus Ventures, Toyota Ventures, JetBlue Ventures, and American Airlines, as well as several major hydrogen producers and aircraft lessors, and its order book has already reached over $1 billion in aircraft conversions backlog and more than $2 billion in fuel services over the first ten years of operation.

The test flight was conducted on Thursday morning, with the one of the 40-seater aircraft’s turbine engines replaced with a fuel cell-electric, megawatt-class powertrain.

Universal Hydrogen’s chief test pilot Alex Kroll said:

“During the second circuit over the airport, we were comfortable with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain, so we were able to throttle back the fossil fuel turbine engine to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power. The airplane handled beautifully, and the noise and vibrations from the fuel cell powertrain are significantly lower than from the conventional turbine engine.”

Universal Hydrogen said that the flight was the first in a two-year flight test campaign, expected to culminate with entry into passenger service of ATR 72 regional aircraft converted to run on hydrogen.

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