The FAA has granted Universal Hydrogen an experimental airworthiness certificate, giving the start-up the green light to proceed with the first test flight of its hydrogen-powered De Havilland Dash 8-300 testbed. Announcing the approval on February 7, the California-based company also said it has already conducted taxi tests with the technology demonstrator aircraft.
Universal Hydrogen is getting ready to fly the converted regional airliner for the first time from Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington. The flight test was originally scheduled to take place by the end of 2022, but it was delayed after “the integration of the hydrogen fuel cell powertrain into the flight test aircraft took somewhat longer than anticipated,” a company spokeswoman told FutureFlight.
Meanwhile, rival hydrogen propulsion system developer ZeroAvia just conducted its first flight test of a 19-seat Dornier 228 aircraft fitted with a hydrogen-fuel-cell-based powertrain on January 19 at Cotswold Airport in the UK. This week the company announced a partnership with energy group Shell and Rotterdam The Hague Airport in the Netherlands to prepare the infrastructure needed for the planned first passenger-carrying services in 2025.
Universal Hydrogen’s converted Dash 8 may not be the first hydrogen-powered regional airliner to start flight testing, but it will likely be the largest to fly to date, as the Dash 8 seats up to 50 passengers. An exact date for the Dash 8 flight test has not yet been determined, but Universal Hydrogen will set one “when taxi testing reaches full power soon,” the spokeswoman said. Universal Hydrogen has just released new video footage from the first taxi tests of the aircraft. The purpose of those taxi tests was to evaluate the aircraft’s ground-handling qualities and the performance of the powertrain at low power settings and airspeeds, company officials said in a statement issued on February 7.
Built into one of the nacelles of the Dash 8 turboprop is a megawatt-class hydrogen fuel cell powertrain that Universal Hydrogen has been developing since 2020. This configuration closely resembles the company’s first product, a hydrogen conversion kit for the ATR 72-600 regional airliner that’s expected to enter service in 2025.
“Notably, Universal Hydrogen’s powertrain does not utilize a hybrid battery architecture—a major innovation—with all of the power transmitted directly from the fuel cells to the electric motor, significantly decreasing weight and lifecycle cost,” Universal Hydrogen said in the statement.
While Universal Hydrogen is developing hydrogen powertrain conversion kits for existing aircraft, the company is also working on a hydrogen delivery system to ensure that airports will be ready for the introduction of hydrogen-powered aircraft. In December, the company conducted the first operational tests of its hydrogen delivery system at its engineering center in Toulouse, France. The system uses modular capsule technology to deliver batches of hydrogen fuel to airports so that any airport capable of handling cargo will be able to support hydrogen-powered flight operations without adding any costly new infrastructure.
“We are simultaneously providing a pragmatic, near-term solution for hydrogen infrastructure and delivery, as well as for converting existing passenger aircraft to use this lightweight, safe, and true-zero-emissions fuel,” said Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen. “Today’s milestones are essential, important steps to putting the industry on a trajectory to meet Paris Agreement obligations. The only alternative is curtailing aviation traffic growth to curb emissions.”