Largest aircraft so far tested with a hydrogen-powered engine

The aviation company ZeroAvia has successfully tested a hydrogen-electric engine to drive one of the propellers in a 19-seat aircraft

Technology


20 January 2023

ZeroAvia's test aircraft

ZeroAvia’s test aircraft

ZeroAvia

An aircraft with an experimental hydrogen-electric engine on its left wing completed a test flight this week. It is the largest such vessel to have been powered by a hydrogen engine yet.

British and US-based company ZeroAvia conducted a 10-minute test flight with an engine that converts hydrogen fuel into electricity to drive 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 do a zero-emissions flight with a clean fuel that we can make in so many places, wherever there’s electricity and water, it changes people’s minds about things,” says Jacob Leachman of Washington State University.

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

If all goes well with subsequent tests, ZeroAvia aims to submit the hydrogen-electric engine for regulatory certification in 2023. It could also pave the way for a larger engine suitable for 90-seat aircraft.

“There have been tests of hydrogen fuel cell-based aircraft on a smaller scale, and every time we get to demonstrate greater power levels in larger aircraft, we learn,” says Kiruba Haran of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The aviation startup already has investment from American Airlines along with an agreement for the possibility of ordering up to 100 hydrogen-electric engines in the future.

Airbus, one of the two largest aircraft manufacturers in the world, also previously announced plans to use hydrogen fuel in the development of the first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035. But Airbus has acknowledged that most commercial airlines will still use gas turbine engines until at least 2050.

Moving commercial aviation toward truly zero-emission flights would require much more than simply replacing traditional jet fuel with hydrogen fuel. The production of hydrogen fuel also requires electricity that can still come from a fossil fuel-powered power grid – although scientists are looking at ways to produce hydrogen more cleanly in large enough quantities to power fleets of aircraft.

“When you really look at trying to go to sustainable hydrogen-based aviation, you have to figure out how to get the hydrogen at scale,” says John Hansman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “And we’re talking a lot of hydrogen.”

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