Hydrogen-Powered Planes Prove Promising in Sustainable Aviation Efforts

Hydrogen-powered planes are showing promise in the pursuit of a more sustainable airline industry. Recent successful test flights conducted by two California-based startups have demonstrated the potential of hydrogen fuel cell propeller planes. These prototypes, which involve retrofitting existing turboprops, offer different approaches to achieving various goals.

One of the prototypes, designed by Universal Hydrogen, is a 40-passenger Dash 8. The aircraft incorporates an original jet fuel engine, a 1.2 megawatt fuel cell, and an 800-kilowatt electric motor. The Dash 8 has successfully completed nine flights, reaching heights of up to 10,000 feet and speeds of over 170 knots (195 mph). Similarly, ZeroAvia’s modified 19-seat Dornier 228 has undergone 10 successful flights at 5,000 feet, traveling at speeds of 150 knots without any issues. This twin-engine turboprop utilizes both hydrogen fuel cells and batteries in addition to standard fuel systems.

With air travel steadily recovering after COVID-19 lockdowns, carbon emissions from airplanes are a growing concern. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that air travel will surpass pre-pandemic levels by 2025. To ensure a sustainable future, the IEA suggests keeping CO2 levels below 1000 metric tonnes by the end of the decade. However, the current progress of the airline industry falls short of meeting this goal.

Traditionally, experts believed that hydrogen fuel airplanes were not economically or logistically viable due to space requirements and power outputs of hydrogen canisters. However, Universal Hydrogen and ZeroAvia plan to transition to liquid hydrogen, which provides more efficient energy storage in smaller spaces.

While hydrogen-powered flights will likely be limited to shorter distances in the near future, they can still make a significant impact on reducing airline emissions. A new report from the International Council on Clean Transportation indicates that even a retrofitted fuel-cell plane can generate one-third less CO2 over its lifetime compared to “e-kerosene” made from water, carbon dioxide, and electricity.

The realization of sustainable air travel has long been a challenge. However, with the potential for flights free of CO2 emissions, powered by renewable energy sources, people can explore the world without harming it.

Howard Rhodes