Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

A hydrogen-powered airplane just made a record-setting test flight

Startup Universal Hydrogen says it successfully flew a 40-seat passenger plane powered mainly by hydrogen during a test flight in Washington.
By Maria Gallucci

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A white-and-blue airplane with twin propellers takes off from an airport landing strip.
(Universal Hydrogen)

A test flight over central Washington state marked the second significant, if early, milestone for hydrogen-powered aviation so far this year.

Universal Hydrogen said it successfully flew40-passenger aircraft using primarily hydrogen during part of the 15-minute flight early on Thursday morning. The Los Angeles–based startup replaced one of the plane’s two turbine engines with a fuel-cell electric powertrain. The other conventional engine remained in place, though the pilot said he was able to reduce its use.

The flight came just weeks after another hydrogen aviation startup, ZeroAvia, flight-tested its own prototype plane over the English countryside. The 19-seater flew for 10 minutes, making it the largest aircraft powered partly by hydrogen to take flight. That mantle now apparently belongs to Universal Hydrogen.

Thursday’s run, from a small airport near Moses Lake, is the first in a series of flight tests that Universal Hydrogen plans to conduct over the next two years. The company said it aims to enter a hydrogen-fueled aircraft into passenger service in 2025. Its first customer will likely be Connect Airlines, a private jet operator that’s proposing to run a regional passenger service between Toronto, Chicago and Philadelphia.

We have committed to being North America’s first zero-emission airline, and this historic flight…is a key milestone on our journey,” John Thomas, CEO of Connect Airlines, said in a press release.

Aviation startups, major airlines and manufacturers are all pursuing solutions to reduce the sector’s growing environmental impacts — short of encouraging people to fly less. In the United States, commercial aircraft and business jets contribute roughly 3 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions every year, along with other harmful effects such as planet-warming contrails.

Many airlines are investing in sustainable aviation fuels, which can be made from waste materials, such as used cooking oil and captured carbon dioxide, and can be used in existing jet engines and fuel-supply systems. Last month, United Airlines launched a $100 million investment fund to support startups that are working to dramatically increase supplies of alternative jet fuels, of which hardly any exist today.

However, as a long-term, zero-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, hydrogen is increasingly gaining favor within the industry.

United has a stake in ZeroAvia, while Universal Hydrogen’s investors include GE Aviation, American Airlines and the venture-capital arms of Airbus, JetBlue and Toyota. Separately, Delta Air Lines is partnering with Airbus to develop a hydrogen-powered passenger plane. The aircraft manufacturer itself is building a demonstration engine to test hydrogen propulsion in one of its A380 superjumbo jets.

Combustion engines like Airbus’, which burn hydrogen in its liquid form, might be capable of handling one-third of total passenger air traffic worldwide, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. Hydrogen fuel cells produce less power than engines, so their use is likely to be limited to short-haul regional routes of less than 400 miles, researchers said.

Those are the types of routes that Universal Hydrogen is targeting. The startup said it has agreements with 16 customers worldwide to convert 247 regional aircraft to run on hydrogen.

Along with retrofit conversion kits, the company is also developing hydrogen storage capsules. The idea is to collect hydrogen from electrolyzer plants, which can produce the fuel cleanly using water and electricity. Hydrogen capsules could then be transported by truck or train and ultimately deposited directly into an aircraft’s body using a forklift.

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,” Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen, said in a statement.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.