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Tue, Oct 03, 2023

Universal Hydrogen Flight Test Campaign Proceeding Apace

Hydrogen in the High Desert

Hawthorne, California-based Universal Hydrogen is an energy concern about the speculative business of making hydrogen-powered commercial flight a near-term reality.

In furtherance of the company’s stated objective, Universal Hydrogen has commenced a flight-test and maturation campaign germane to its hydrogen fuel-cell aero-propulsion scheme.

On the morning of 02 March 2023 Universal Hydrogen flew its Lightning McClean test-aircraft, an extensively-modified De Havilland Dash 8-300 regional airliner, under partial, hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion. The test aircraft lifted off from central Washington State’s Grant County International Airport (MWH) at 08:14 PST and flew for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500-feet MSL.

In preparation for the test-flight, Lightning McClean’s conventional, jet-fuel-burning, number-two (starboard) engine was replaced by a hydrogen-electric powertrain comprising Plug Power’s ProGen fuel-cells specially modified for aviation use, and Everett, Washington-based MagniX’s megawatt-class Magni650 electric propulsion unit. The Dash 8’s left engine, however, remained the 2,380-shaft-horsepower Pratt & Whitney PW123 turboprop mill originally envisaged for the aircraft by Bombardier and Almighty God. The turboprop engine’s proven reliability offset the variables of the hydrogen-electric architecture, thereby affording the endeavor—and the test-flight-crew—a key degree of safety-critical redundancy.

In June 2023, Lightning McClean undertook a ferry-flight from Moses Lake to California’s Mojave Air and Space Port (ERO), thereby significantly expanding the hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain’s operational envelope.

Comes now September 2023, and Lightning McClean, by dint of ten successful test-flights, continues to advance upon Universal Hydrogen’s ambition to see its powertrain technology enter into commercial service in 2026.

On 26 September, the stalwart Dash 8-300 completed a twenty-minute flight, during which the aircraft’s flaps and landing gear were retracted. The machine subsequently climbed to an altitude of five-thousand-feet-MSL before making several passes over ERO with its conventional turboprop engine throttled-back and its hydrogen powertrain at full-power. Engineers measured the noise-level-reduction presumably inherent the hydrogen fuel-cell-electric propulsion unit—which was operated at maximum power during takeoff.

Speaking to the subject of Lightning McClean’s ongoing flight-test regimen, Angelina Galiteva, CEO of the Alliance for Renewable Clean Hydrogen Energy Systems (ARCHES), stated: “It's truly exciting to see Universal Hydrogen's zero-emission plane flying over California’s skies. It's a great example of how California-based companies like Universal Hydrogen are working to alleviate the impacts of climate change and improve local air quality all while bringing tangible community benefits, like good paying jobs and technological innovation, to California. We look forward to partnering with Universal Hydrogen … to make zero-emission flight a commercial reality for everyone.”

ARCHES is a California’s public-private consortium founded for purpose of accelerating the development and deployment of clean, renewable H2 projects and infrastructure throughout the as-of-late ironically-named Golden State.

Lightning McClean’s flight-test campaign is slated to span two-years, during which the performance of the aircraft’s hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain will be continuously evaluated and improved upon. Planned upgrades include the installations of a new custom-developed, aviation-grade turbo-compressor conducive to operations at altitudes as high as FL250, and Universal Hydrogen’s patented, modular, liquid-hydrogen fuel-storage system.

Flight-testing will culminate, ostensibly, with certification testing, by which Universal Hydrogen will prove to the FAA that Lightning McClean’s production configuration meets the entirety of the agency’s compulsory airworthiness and safety requirements.

Universal Hydrogen’s decision to base its flight-test operations at the Mojave Air & Space Port was predicated, primarily, upon the company’s two-fold desire to avail itself of the region’s considerable engineering talent pool while increasing its California presence—which includes the outfit’s Hawthorne headquarters and engineering center.

Mojave Air & Space Port general manager Tim Reid remarked: “We are excited to work with Universal Hydrogen to pave the way to reducing aircraft emissions using a sustainable, green, and increasingly available fuel—hydrogen. Their innovative technology, paired with the use of existing regional aircraft, will revolutionize the industry, leading to a systematic, affordable, and rapid transition to zero-emission transportation.

Air New Zealand chief sustainability officer Kiri Hannifin set forth: "Universal Hydrogen is one of the partners we’re working with on our ambition to replace our Q300 regional turboprops with a lower emissions fleet from 2030. We’re incredibly encouraged by their progress and the milestones achieved to date. We’ll be watching closely as they continue their journey towards certification and entry to service.”

Initially, Universal Hydrogen intends to offer hydrogen-electric propulsion system conversions for the 78-passenger, French-built ATR-72 twin-engine turboprop regional airliner. To date, the company has struck ATR-72 conversion deals with numerous customers.

FMI: www.hydrogen.aero

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