And Universal Hydrogen will join the race this week. The company has a test flight planned for the Dash 8-300, a regional aircraft with more than 40 seats.
The main goal is to test the propulsion system, which will use hydrogen fuel cells that will turn hydrogen and oxygen into water vapor, which will generate electricity to power the plane.
The plane flies with hydrogen fuel cells powering one side while a traditional jet engine runs on the other. This is standard practice for testing new flight systems, says CEO and cofounder of Universal Hydrogen Paul Eremenko.
Even if the test flight is successful, there is a long road ahead before cargo or passengers can board a hydrogen-powered plane. That’s because there’s a lot of infrastructure around airplanes, and a broad shift to hydrogen-powered flight might require rethinking it.
Take fuel for example. Commercial airports now have an established network of fueling planes. Jet fuel is transported, usually by trucks or in pipelines to a central fueling system. Trucks can pick it up and take it to the plane while it sits at a gate.
That whole system probably doesn’t work well for hydrogen, Eremenko said. Pipelines carrying hydrogen are prone to leaks, and storing hydrogen in liquid form requires cooling it to cryogenic temperatures, which often means significant losses when moving it from one container to another.
The solution, as Eremenko sees it, looks like one of my prized possessions: a Nespresso coffee maker. Universal Hydrogen plans to develop and use pods filled with hydrogen fuel that can be loaded and unloaded from its planes, eliminating the need to transfer hydrogen between different containers.
This week’s test flight will not use the pods, as the focus is on making sure the plane’s propulsion system works as intended. The Dash 8-300 that will fly will be powered by hydrogen tanks that are filled before takeoff, but future test flights will use the capsule system to test how that works in the air, Eremenko said.