A hydrogen plane undergoes engine startup trials

Universal Hydrogen’s Dash 8 aircraft spins up its hydrogen powered electric motor for the first time. (Universal Hydrogen via Twitter)

Universal Hydrogen is taking advantage of the 13,500-foot runway in Moses Lake to prove that hydrogen could be the fuel of the future for commercial aircraft. The company’s converted De Havilland Dash 8 spun up its propellers for the first time this month.

The plane, known as “Lightning McClean,” uses MagniX’s electric motor Magni650, which is manufactured in Everett. Each motor is rated at 850 shaft horsepower. McClean is only using one of the engines during initial tests to provide a margin of safety. With successful start-up tests completed, the plane will start taxi and flight tests in the coming months.

“Decarbonization of aviation is really hard,” says Mark Cousin, Universal Hydrogen’s chief technology officer. “We don’t believe it’s going to be done with batteries. And the key market within the aviation business, which produces nearly 60% of aviation emissions, is the single-aisle family of aircraft.”

The industry needs to come up with a plan for a new generation of single-aisle planes by the 2030s, Cousins told Geekwire. “What we want to do is demonstrate to their customers, and ultimately to them, that hydrogen is the only really viable zero-emissions fuel for the next generation of short- and medium-range aircraft.”

Technology and materials have changed dramatically since the famous Hindenburg disaster in 1937. Researchers have come a long way in understanding the properties of nature’s lightest gas, which has been tainted by history until now.

Of course, liquid hydrogen has been used as a fuel source for the space program for decades. When chilled, the gas turns into a liquid that can be stored in tanks. When hydrogen is mixed with oxygen, electricity and water become the byproducts.

Toyota and Hyundai are already selling hydrogen-powered cars in California, and ZeroAvia recently conducted the first flight of a hydrogen-battery-powered airplane. The company has a research and development facility at Everett’s Paine Field and has some big investors behind it.

Universal is taking a different approach, focusing on hydrogen as a clean fuel source. It’s not interested in building planes. Instead, it plans to capture the conversion market for short- and medium-range passenger aircraft.

Moses Lake provides the ideal testing ground since Universal is using MagniX’s Magni650 on the De Havilland testbed. Seattle-based AeroTEC provides engineering for the conversion work, while Spokane’s PlugPower office provides the fuel cells.

The runway in Moses Lake was initially designed to handle long-range bombers and served as an alternate landing site during the Space Shuttle program. Eviation, which is building its new all-electric plane Alice in Arlington, Washington, shares hangar space with Lightning McClean.


Read all about it in Geekwire.