Hydrogen is well and truly on the rise as the zero-emissions aviation fuel of the future, with Airbus announcing its ZeroE initiative to get hydrogen airliners into production by 2035. But that’s a long way off, and innovators are pushing to get H2 aircraft operating commercially much earlier.
A new LA-based fuel logistics startup, Universal Hydrogen, has embarked on a project to develop a retrofittable hydrogen powertrain for existing airliners, and will test it with a 40-seat De Havilland Canada DHC8-Q300, commonly known as the Dash-8, that will become the world’s largest hydrogen-fueled commercial aircraft.
Where Airbus plans to burn hydrogen as a combustion fuel in modified gas turbines, Universal is developing a fully electric fuel-cell powertrain complete with Magnix electric motors to drive the Dash-8’s two turboprops. Magnix brings some experience to the table, after powering the world’s largest electric aircraft earlier this year – a retrofitted nine-seater Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, which took its first flight in May.
Universal’s hydrogen-powered Dash-8 will use a pair of two-megawatt Magnix electric motors, offering a little more power than the standard plane’s pair of 1,860-kW Pratt & Whitney turboprop motors offer. The hydrogen will act as a battery, producing electricity as it’s run through the aircraft’s fuel cells.
According to AINOnline, the standard plane’s 56-seat capacity is reduced to 40 because of large hydrogen modules that’ll replace the last few rows of seats. Range will be around 400 nautical miles (460 mi, 740 km) plus reserve on gaseous hydrogen, meaning the hydrogen Dash-8 could serve about 75 percent of current Dash-8 flight routes, and once a liquid hydrogen system is implemented those figures should rise to 550 nm (630 mi, 1,020 km) and 95 percent. Fueling will be handled by standard cargo-loading equipment or even forklifts; Universal is treating the hydrogen fuel as dry freight to be loaded in and out in seven-foot-long (2-m), three-foot-diameter (0.9-m) modules.
Universal believes it can get this project into commercial service as soon as 2024, with passenger prices no higher than regular Dash-8 trips despite the limited seats and exotic fuel. The company says there’s around 2,200 compatible Dash-8 aircraft operating globally that could be retrofitted, and it’s working towards developing a system that can be incorporated into new aircraft designs.
Hydrogen fuel’s high energy density, as well as the fact that there are many different ways to produce it, make it much more suitable for weight-sensitive aviation use than lithium batteries. As part of this initiative, Universal will have to prove the safety of a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain, including drop, burst and vent tests on the fuel modules – these should provide an answer to critics’ assertions that hydrogen is inherently more dangerous than aviation fuel.