Universal Hydrogen completes maiden flight of largest hydrogen-electric plane 

One of the leading companies in the emerging hydrogen flight space, California-based Universal Hydrogen, has reached a major milestone. 

Universal Hydrogen, a startup headed by former Airbus CTO Paul Eremenko, announced completion of the first flight of its hydrogen-electric demonstrator on March 2, 2023. 

The aircraft, a modified De Havilland Canada Dash 8-300 turboprop powered by a hydrogen-fed fuel cell, took off from Moses Lake airport in Washington state for a 15 minute flight, during which it achieved a maximum altitude of 3,500ft. 

In flight, one of the aircraft’s two propellers was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell using liquid hydrogen as fuel, while the other engine was running on conventional jet fuel.  

The 40-seater Dash 8-300 has been fitted with a liquid hydrogen tank, taking some of the space usually available in the cabin. Hydrogen feeds into a fuel cell, which in turn powers a magniX electric motor. 

During the flight, pilots reduced the power on the conventional Pratt & Whitney engine for the plane to do part of the cruising stage almost entirely using hydrogen-electric propulsion.  

This is not just Universal Hydrogen’s first flight, but also the largest hydrogen-electric aircraft to fly to this date, surpassing the previous record-holder, ZeroAvia’s hybrid-electric Do228, which made its maiden flight the previous January. It is also the second largest aircraft ever to fly on hydrogen, after an experiment conducted by the Soviet Union in the 1980s with a Tupolev Tu-155 aircraft. 

Universal Hydrogen is working on a system of swappable hydrogen capsules that are designed to fit inside retrofitted regional aircraft.  

This way the startup expects to fix one of the main constraints that could hamper the adoption of hydrogen propulsion, namely the lack of an established supply chain for hydrogen.  

With Universal Hydrogen’s system, operators can refuel by swapping pre-filled movable pods that can be easily transported by road from the hydrogen production facility to the place where it will be used. This system has sometimes been compared to that of the Nespresso coffee capsules. 

Developments in the hydrogen propulsion space are followed closely by the industry, since the use of this element as fuel has been touted as one of the most promising pathways to decarbonize aviation. 

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