And Universal Hydrogen is joining the fray this week. The company plans a test flight for the Dash 8-300, a regional aircraft with more than 40 seats.
The main goal is to test the propulsion system, which uses hydrogen fuel cells to convert hydrogen and oxygen into water vapor and generate electricity to power the aircraft.
The plane is powered by hydrogen fuel cells on the one hand and a traditional jet engine on the other. According to Paul Eremenko, CEO and founder of Universal Hydrogen, it’s standard practice to test new systems in flight.
Even if the test flight was successful, there is still a long way to go before cargo or passengers can take off on a hydrogen-powered plane. That’s because there’s a lot of infrastructure around airplanes, and a broad transition to hydrogen-powered flight may require a lot of rethinking.
Take fuel for example. Commercial airports today have an extensive network for fueling aircraft. Jet fuel is usually transported in trucks or pipelines to a central fueling system. Trucks sit on the porch and take it to the plane.
That whole system may not work well for hydrogen, says Eremenko. Pipelines carrying hydrogen are prone to leaks, and keeping hydrogen in liquid form requires cooling it to cryogenic temperatures, which means there is often a lot of loss when moving it from one container to another.
The solution, as Eremenko sees it, seems to be one of my prized possessions, a Nespresso coffee maker. Universal Hydrogen plans to develop and use hydrogen-fueled pods that can be loaded and unloaded from the planes, preventing the transfer of hydrogen between different containers.
This week’s test flight will not use those pods because the focus is on making sure the plane’s propulsion system is working as intended. The flying Dash 8-300 is powered by hydrogen tanks filled before flight, but future test flights will use the capsule system to learn how it performs in the air, Eremenko said.