Why NM's geography makes it perfect for hydrogen-powered flight

Why New Mexico’s aviation scene lends itself to hydrogen-powered flight

Universal Hydrogen’s ATR 72-600 turboprop plane at the company’s engineering and design center at the Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in France. (Courtesy of Universal Hydrogen)

Universal Hydrogen could potentially shake up the regional airline industry in the U.S. and elsewhere by rapidly converting the turboprop planes that service short-line routes to hydrogen propulsion.

Turboprop aircraft are used for interstate and intrastate hops nationwide and globally, constituting a huge initial market for Universal’s drop-in hyrogen-plane conversion kits, and for its proprietary, modular hydrogen capsules, which provide the clean fuel needed to power up the electric motors that would replace combustion engines used today.

Narrow-body, single-aisle turboprops are an ubiquitous part of the global aviation industry, and they’re currently responsible for most aviation emissions.

Universal’s hydrogen propulsion system would permit those planes to fly up to 1,000 kilometers, or 620 miles, before refueling, allowing them to continue serving regional routes everywhere, said Universal co-founder and general counsel Jon Gordon.

“Why use a carbon-burning jet to fly from Albuquerque to El Paso, or to Phoenix,” Gordon said. “Los Angeles to San Francisco is another great example. We’ll need to convince people to do it with our (converted) planes rather than turbo jets, but the opportunity is there.”

The Southwest is particularly ripe for hydrogen turboprop conversion, Gordon added.

“The (geographical) scope in the Southwest lends itself to regional aviation,” he said. “It’s a perfect test case.”

Universal’s lightweight, aluminum-based, liquid-hydrogen capsules are key to providing the aerodynamics and favorable economics needed to convert turboprops to hydrogen. The refillable capsules can be delivered directly from hydrogen-production plants to airports and then loaded and unloaded on planes using existing transport and management infrastructure. That facilitates easy shipping everywhere, eliminating the need for expensive upgrades at airports, or alterations to current freight transport services.

In addition, the lightweight tanks are specifically designed to not add weight to the aircraft, while still allowing enough liquid hydrogen to be transported within current standards of passenger safety, according to the company. In fact, Universal says its hydrogen propulsion system will have unit economics that are equivalent to — or even better than — those of conventional jet fuel-powered aircraft, allowing the converted turboprops to fly further than those regional aircraft are typically capable of.

New federal incentives in the recently approved Inflation Reduction Act will also substantially lower the costs for Universal’s products and services. The act offers companies a 30% tax break on investments in clean hydrogen, plus a sliding-scale production tax break of up to $3 for each kilogram of hydrogen produced with near-zero carbon emissions.

That will substantially lower customer costs for Universal’s electrolysis-based, “green” hydrogen.

“In our case, that $3 production tax credit brings the hydrogen cost down to a similar cost with today’s jet fuel,” Gordon said.

Universal’s current technology, however, is not applicable to the huge, wide-body aircraft that serve transoceanic airline routes, because the hydrogen fuel cells aren’t powerful enough for those large, long-distance planes. For that, the industry may instead need to consider directly burning hydrogen as a substitute for carbon-emitting jet fuel, although that would only lower greenhouse gas emissions, not eliminate them, because hydrogen releases nitrogen oxide when combusted, Gordon said.

“Our technology is immediately suitable for regional and smaller planes,” he said. “Converting the large planes to hydrogen is probably still another decade or so out.”

Universal is working to develop hydrogen-combustion technology for big aircraft, including new technology that would capture the NOx emissions, Gordon told the Journal.

But for now, it’s primarily focused on regional airlines.

“This is the start of hydrogen aviation,” Gordon said. “It’s by no means an end, but we can begin getting customers comfortable with hydrogen planes and regulators familiar with them.”

Going forward, the company also expects to push into other potential hydrogen markets to provide drop-in solutions for everything from buses to mining equipment.

“That’s why we call ourselves ‘Universal Hydrogen’ rather than ‘Hydrogen Aviation,'” Gordon said. “We want to serve many verticals.”


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