Will hydrogen eventually supplant traditional sources of aviation fuels? One company thinks so.
Getting the aviation industry to fully embrace alternative energy for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft of varying sizes over traditional fuels is a challenge. Even with government aid, political support and the evolving mindset of the populace toward sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), the task is reminiscent of Sisyphus continuing to roll his huge boulder up a hill.
Unlike the character in Greek mythology, Dr. Alex Ivanenko, co-founder and CEO of HyPoint, a Silicon Valley, California-based developer of hydrogen (H2) fuel cell systems, is not on an endless journey.
“The electrification of aviation will add several benefits that are not achievable with current fossil fuel-based systems, including higher efficiency, noise reduction and zero-emission,” said Ivanenko. “Our hydrogen fuel cell system addresses all of these [concerns] and can accelerate the delivery timeline of electric aviation and aeronautical vehicles.”
HyPoint’s two-fold strategic plan includes retrofitting existing aircraft with hydrogen fuel cell systems or designing “hydrogen-native vehicles” from scratch.
HyPoint revealed to Vertiflite that it has $8.5M in development agreements already with ZeroAvia and Piasecki Aircraft Corp. on its existing hydrogen fuel cell system. These agreements also cover the order book of 600 aircraft with expected revenue of $150M, beginning in 2023. The functional prototype has passed numerous subsystem tests, which “strongly suggest that our patented technology and unique approach works.” As this article was being compiled, HyPoint also announced that it was conceptualizing a megawatt fuel cell system for high-altitude and large aircraft.
ZeroAvia Founder and CEO Val Miftakhov stated the capability of hydrogen power and its collaboration with HyPoint: “We’ve proven that hydrogen-electric aircraft are not only possible, but [also] inevitable — and now we are working hard to get a 100-seat zero-emission aircraft in the skies before 2030.”
He added: “We are working closely with the team at HyPoint to test their systems for potential integration into future ZeroAvia aircraft.”
Hydrogen has shown tremendous promise for electric vertical and conventional takeoff and landing (eVTOL and eCTOL) aircraft. In September 2020, ZeroAvia became the first company to successfully complete a hydrogen-electric passenger aircraft flight using a six-seat modified Piper M-Class aircraft. The company has raised $21.4M from Shell, Amazon and a Bill Gates-backed fund. ZeroAvia has now acquired a pair of 19-seat Dornier 228s to test hydrogen fuel cell powertrain technology.
HyPoint’s notoriety picked up in 2020 when its hydrogen fuel cell system for use in zero emission gravity was named one of three winners of the NASA iTech Initiative Cycle II, which awards companies whose inventions further space exploration.
HyPoint’s High Temperature Polymeric Electrolyte Membrane (HTPEM) air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell system could achieve up to 2,000 watts per kilogram of specific power, “which is more than triple the power-to-weight ratio of traditional hydrogen fuel cell systems,” stated HyPoint. The company’s approach uses compressed air for both cooling and oxygen supply delivery for the HTPEM fuel cell system.
In addition, the hydrogen system can produce up to 1,500 W-hr/kg, enabling longer distance trips. This is accomplished by increasing cooled fuel cell system power output efficiently by circulating air at high pressure through the fuel cell stack and recirculating the exhaust air.
“As long as the air contains sufficient oxygen, it can be reused,” according to HyPoint. Traditional fuel cells require heavy cooling systems. Using HTPEM fuel cells allows HyPoint to develop a lightweight, efficient cooling system.
VFS H2eVTOL Council
Hydrogen could one day augment or replace conventional aviation fuels and, more importantly, batteries, which are very poor energy storage devices, with only 5–20% of the energy of fossil fuels, according to research by the Vertical Flight Society.
The council’s charter includes the requirements needed to create a practical hydrogen-powered eVTOL aircraft, including batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and electric motors.
In its vision statement, the H2eVTOL Council stated it “will mobilize the aerospace industry, its engineering, scientific and technical communities, as well as adjacent industries, universities and government laboratories, to fast-track hydrogen as a clean, affordable and sustainable energy source to power vertical flight.”
The council envisions that hydrogen, “where practical, will become a standard and dominant energy source for manned and unmanned flight.”
The value proposition for hydrogen power would help advance aeronautics over other electric energy solutions as well as benefit the environment, an overarching goal of the global aviation community. Hydrogen offers the greatest energy per unit weight of any transportation fuel source, according to the Council, although it requires much greater volume than fossil fuels, on par with batteries. Noteworthy too is the fact that the automotive sector has achieved steady progress on hydrogen power.
“If a hydrogen-powered eVTOL prototype can carry 2 people over 200 miles [320 km] at less than 2,000 lb [900 kg] gross weight, that would be a game changer for the vertical flight sector,” said Dr. Anubhav Datta, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, who is the chair of the VFS Electric VTOL Technical Committee and technical advisor to the H2eVTOL Council.
Battery weight is a major factor for eVTOL aircraft today; Datta noted that the lighter weight of an H2 energy storage solution could enable the “2-200-2000” goal — the comparable specs for a Robinson R22 is 2-180-1400.
Would HyPoint’s hydrogen system augment or replace current fossil fuel-based engines? “This depends on the customer and their business model,” said Ivanenko, who held senior positions at 3M Corp. and Owens Corning before founding HyPoint. “If [operators] want to continue using their existing fleet, we can retrofit fossil fuel combustion engines to use a hydrogen fuel cell-based powertrain.”
“Alternatively, if a customer is designing new electric vehicles, we would customize our system to meet their specific requirements.” This scenario would be the most common for eVTOL air taxis and other electric-powered aircraft. HyPoint’s hydrogen fuel cell can increase flight duration by two to four times, company materials claim.
Hydrogen represents the most practical replacement to fossil fuels, said Ivanenko, who views batteries as a “Band-Aid approach” to alternative power for aircraft: “Lithium-ion batteries do not offer the specific power or energy density needed for practical use. One of our customers, who initially designed a battery-powered eVTOL aircraft, is now focusing on alternatives,” he said.
That customer is Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, which will have an exclusive license in the intellectual property created as part of the collaboration for all VTOL applications, and a non-exclusive license in the underlying technology, Vertiflite can reveal. The company and its PA-890 were featured in the March/April 2021 issue of Vertiflite (see “Piasecki Aircraft: Carrying on the Spirit of Innovation”).
Earlier this year, Piasecki and HyPoint signed a collaborative agreement to develop an HTPEM air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell system for vertical lift aircraft. As per the agreement, HyPoint is responsible for developing its hydrogen fuel cell technology for eVTOL applications. Piasecki is responsible for integrating the technology into a viable, certifiable eVTOL powerplant system.
“Our objective is to be able to have a viable hydrogen fuel cell system for integration into an eVTOL product that can be certified in the next four to six years,” said the company’s CEO, John Piasecki. In the winter of 2021, Piasecki provided funding for HyPoint to conduct lab tests on a scaled HTPEM fuel cell and develop the initial design of the hydrogen fuel cell.
In a related development, Piasecki is under contract with the US Air Force’s AFWERX to develop a viable hydrogen fuel cell system for military vertical lift aircraft.
Meanwhile, research on hydrogen and battery-powered vertical lift aircraft continues.
“Our detailed examinations on battery technology indicate two fundamental challenges,” said Piasecki. “1. The energy density is not where it needs be to support mission performance. 2. The current lifecycle of battery technology today is inadequate to support a significant reduction in direct operating costs (DOCs) relative to turbine-powered systems.
“This is not to say that battery technology won’t improve. There are many platform developers investing billions of dollars on future aircraft that need higher energy density and lower DOCs than turbine powered systems. We’re focused on delivering that capability to the eVTOL marketplace.”
Piasecki is working toward commencement of ground-based certification testing of the full-scale HTPEM hydrogen fuel cell by 2023.
Governments have yet to offer direct seed funding for HyPoint’s hydrogen fuel cell. However, HyPoint’s customers in the UK (ZeroAvia) and US (Piasecki) have received government support and HyPoint is a subcontractor on these projects.
Ivanenko addressed the history of its hydrogen fuel cell and tentative path toward certification.
In late 2020, the company built a fully operational smaller prototype that “exceeded our testing expectations and models,” said Ivanenko, who made the announcement at the VFS Electric VTOL Symposium in January. At present, the company is designing the full-scale system, which could be delivered in 2022-23. HyPoint hopes that its fuel cell will help drive commercial development of zero-emission electric aircraft.
Certification will depend on which model HyPoint customers choose — retrofit or new design. Ivanenko believes certification on retrofitting will only take a year or two since only the powertrain needs to be certified. HyPoint customer ZeroAvia has secured an experimental permit from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly a six-seat aircraft using a hydrogen-electric powertrain. Timing of certification will depend primarily on the aircraft maker, HyPoint stressed. Commercial deliveries are expected by 2025.
HyPoint’s hydrogen fuel cell will likely find success first in Europe, which is putting significant emphasis on hydrogen for commercial airliners and other aircraft as part of its European Green Deal.
Fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft manufacturers recognize hydrogen’s long-term potential. Airbus announced recently it would use its A380 jumbo airliner (which will no longer be manufactured after this year) as a test bed for hydrogen fuel tanks for future airliners. The planemaker is building zero-emission propulsion centers in Nantes, France, and Bremen, Germany. In addition, Airbus formed a strategic partnership with automotive systems supplier ElringKlinger on fuel cell propulsion systems.
Whether hybrid-electric or all-electric power for planes and vertical-lift aircraft replaces conventional fuels remains to be seen. Nevertheless, aircraft manufacturers are giving more than lip service to alternative fuels. Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury has repeatedly voiced support for hydrogen power.
Airbus Helicopters is actively exploring the viability of using fuel cells as electrical power sources for helicopters and eVTOL aircraft. “Fuel cells are one of the options on the table for reducing fuel consumption and emissions,” said Tomasz Krysinski, head of research and innovation at Airbus Helicopters. But there are other options, he added, which include thermal engine improvements, hybridization and new fuels that the company considers more mature that can bring benefits in the near term.
Helicopters and eVTOL aircraft, due to their hovering capability, make the use of fuel cells “very challenging,” said Krysinski, “in terms of integration in the fuselage.” Greater volumes are required for the fuel cell and the H2 tanks, he added.
Another consideration: certification requirements for aircraft fuel cell use do not exist yet, said Krysinski. “Their fulfillment could require considerable aircraft modifications, leading to further payload/range reduction.”
The FAA, which doesn’t comment on ongoing certification efforts and didn’t address the specific use of hydrogen fuel cells for vertical flight aircraft, provided this general statement: “The FAA will continue to work with applicants to establish appropriate requirements for new and novel features. The FAA can certify these new technologies through special conditions under 14 CFR Part 23 or additional airworthiness criteria, depending on the type of project.”
Science & Politics
Environmentally friendly aircraft, fuel efficient engines and hydrogen technology could help reduce the global warming impact of flying, claims Clean Sky, a public-private partnership between the aeronautics sector and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union. The partnership provides funding for cleaner aircraft among other environmental initiatives.
A new Clean Sky-supported study states that hydrogen-powered aircraft could enter service by “2035 for short-range aircraft and reduce climate impact by 50% to 90%” eventually. The study added: “As an energy source, [hydrogen] will play a key role in transforming aviation into a zero-carbon, climate-neutral system over the next few decades.”
Fair or not, the aviation sector continues to be criticized for warming the planet by relying on burning massive amounts of fossil fuel. How much damage commercial airliners and other aircraft do to the environment is debatable. The Air Transport Action Group, a coalition of aviation interests, states that global aviation is responsible for “2% of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions… [and] 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources, compared to 74% from road transport.”
Using SAF like biofuel blends may not be enough to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. “Radical alternatives to kerosene” to “decarbonize the aviation industry in the longer term” will be needed, according to Deloitte, a multi-national professional services network. “Those fuel sources must include battery-powered and hydrogen-powered aircraft.” An examination of infrastructure requirements is the first step before transitioning to zero-carbon aircraft, Deloitte stated.
The emerging hydrogen aviation market is projected to be valued at more than $27B in 2030 and possibly $174B by 2040, according to Allied Market Research.
HyPoint’s hydrogen fuel cell technology continues to attract interest. In March 2021, the company announced it would begin working with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to further test and validate its hydrogen fuel cell technology. NREL’s research focuses on developing hydrogen fuel cell applications for transportation and other areas. The research ranges from overcoming technical barriers, improving manufacturing processes to developing high-volume fuel cell production.
Ivanenko is well known to VFS. HyPoint joined VFS as a corporate member and was a founding member of the Council last year, formed because of hydrogen’s significant potential as a power source for vertical flight. In addition to aircraft applications, the Council engages with other transportation entities, such as automotive, maritime, trucking and transit.
“Hydrogen has the greatest energy per unit weight of any transportation fuel source on earth, which makes it an exciting potential source of energy for eVTOL propulsion,” the VFS H2eVTOL Council wrote in its charter.
Hydrogen power may be transformative for eVTOL, even if not yet applicable for retrofit into today’s conventional helicopters. Nevertheless, green aviation initiatives in Europe and elsewhere portend that skies could one day be filled with aircraft powered exclusively by alternative fuels, including hydrogen. Based on its ongoing research and expanding customer base, HyPoint could be among the leaders in hydrogen power when that day comes.
About the Author
Robert W. Moorman is a freelance writer specializing in various facets of the fixed-wing and rotary-wing air transportation business. With more than 30 years of experience, his writing clients include several of the leading aviation magazines targeting the civil and military markets.
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