A startup aiming for carbon-free aviation plans to hold an inaugural test flight powered by its hydrogen fuel cells next year. ** FILE ** An ATR 72, built by European aerospace industries, is seen in this May 2005 file photo. A similar passenger ATR 72 flown by a Tunisian company crash landed in the sea Saturday, Aug. 6, 2005, off the Sicilian coast on a flight from Bari, Italy, to Djerba, Tunisia. Palermo port officials said at least 22 people survive the crash landing. (AP Photo/Pascal Le Doare/EADS ATR) PASCAL LE DOARE/AP

Los Angeles startup to test hydrogen-powered passenger jet

Jeremy Beaman October 16, 07:00 AM October 16, 07:01 AM

A startup aiming for carbon-free aviation plans to hold an inaugural test flight powered by its hydrogen fuel cells next year.

Los Angeles-based firm Universal Hydrogen announced its plan to test out the technology, which converts hydrogen into electricity to run electric motors, on a 40-seat regional jet after securing $62 million in new investments.

The announcement came quickly for the firm, which was founded in early 2020 but has been boosted by support from major investors, including GE Aviation, Tencent, and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

The fuel cell technology is central to Universal Hydrogen’s first planned product, a conversion kit that replaces traditional jet fuel-powered turboprop engines on ATR 72 and De Havilland Canada Dash-8 regional aircraft with the electric hydrogen-fueled motors. The company will sell its fuel cells separately.

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“It’s the Nespresso coffee model,” said Paul Eremenko, Universal Hydrogen’s co-founder and CEO, in a recent interview with the Financial Times. “We sell the coffee maker for as cheaply as possible, and then we monetize the capsule supply for the life of that product.”

Universal Hydrogen is aiming to get its product into commercial service by 2025 and into cargo shortly after.

To see the latter, the company is teaming up with Irish client ASL Aviation Holdings, which has signed a letter of intent to purchase up to 10 of Universal Hydrogen’s ATR 72 conversion kits for installation in its fleet. ASL is loaning Universal Hydrogen one of its cargo ATR 72s for testing and certification.

“Aviation cannot wait to act for a decade or more before new aircraft types become available, and by working with Universal Hydrogen, we can create a bridge to new aircraft that will allow us to immediately reduce our carbon footprint,” said Dave Andrew, CEO of ASL Aviation Holdings.

Aside from ASL, Universal Hydrogen has letters of intent with regional operators Icelandair, Air Nostrum of Spain, and Ravn Alaska, but its ambitions go beyond the retrofitting of regional jets.

The company is targeting manufacturers of single-aisle jets like the Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737 series aircraft — on which commercial airlines are heavily reliant and that account for some 60% of global aviation emissions — and pushing for its redesign to accommodate the fuel cells.

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“While regional aviation represents a sizable market opportunity and an important early proof point in the fight against climate change, it is a small fraction of total aviation emissions,” Eremenko said. “If we want to decarbonize the industry on the time frame of the Paris Agreement, the world’s narrowbody airliner fleet has to become hydrogen-powered starting in the 2030s.”

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