Largest aircraft tested to date with a hydrogen-powered engine

Largest aircraft tested to date with a hydrogen-powered engine

Aerospace company ZeroAvia successfully tested using a hydrogen electric motor to power one of the propellers on a 19-seat airplane

technology


January 20, 2023

ZeroAvia's test aircraft

ZeroAvia’s test aircraft

ZeroAvia

An aircraft with an experimental left wing hydrogen-electric engine successfully completed a test flight this week. It is the largest vehicle of this type to date to be powered by a hydrogen engine.

UK and US-based company ZeroAvia conducted a 10-minute test flight using an engine that converts hydrogen into electricity to power one of the plane’s two propellers. ZeroAvia aims to enable commercial flights powered only by hydrogen fuel cells by 2025.

“When people see that we can fly zero-emissions on a clean fuel that we can produce in so many places, anywhere that has electricity and water, it changes people’s minds,” says Jacob Leachman of the Washington State University.

The demonstration at Cotswold Airport in Gloucestershire, UK, was also the first flight of the 19-seat Dornier 228 converted into a test aircraft. It is a significantly larger aircraft than the six-seat Piper Malibu, which ZeroAvia has been using to test hydrogen-electric propulsion since 2020.

If all goes well in subsequent testing, ZeroAvia plans to submit the hydrogen-electric engine for regulatory approval in 2023. That could also pave the way for a larger engine suitable for 90-seat aircraft.

“Smaller-scale testing of hydrogen fuel cell-based aircraft has been done, and every time we demonstrate greater levels of performance in larger aircraft, we learn,” says Kiruba Haran of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The aviation start-up already has an investment from American Airlines and an agreement on the possibility of ordering up to 100 hydrogen-electric engines in the future.

Airbus, one of the world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers, also previously announced plans to use hydrogen as a fuel in the development of the first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035. However, Airbus has acknowledged that most airliners would continue to use gas turbine engines until at least 2050.

Moving commercial aviation towards truly zero-emission flights would require much more than simply swapping conventional jet fuel for hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen fuel production also requires electricity, which may still come from a grid powered by fossil fuels – although researchers are looking at ways to produce hydrogen more cleanly in large enough quantities to power aircraft fleets.

“If you’re really trying to move to sustainable hydrogen-based aviation, you need to figure out how to get the hydrogen at scale,” says John Hansman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “And we’re talking about a lot of hydrogen here.”

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