Paul Eremenko, a former Airbus and Raytheon Technologies executive, has co-founded a company that aims to bring hydrogen-fuel technology and a related supply system to regional airliners as soon as 2024.
Start-up Universal Hydrogen, which Eremenko co-founded with an experienced team, plans first to integrate the technology into a modified De Havilland Canada Dash 8-300.
It intends for that project to jump start the hydrogen-fuel aviation market, lead to other hydrogen aircraft and create business for an envisioned broad hydrogen-supply network.
Los Angeles-based Universal says the Dash 8-300 system could be modified to work with ATR 42-600s, and it envisions larger hydrogen-powered turboprops like Dash 8-400s and ATR 72s.
But the company is aiming higher: its ultimate goal is to supply a next-generation single-aisle airliner made by Airbus, Boeing or possibly China’s Comac.
“The big prize in this game is the new single aisle,” Eremenko tells FlightGlobal. “We want to be a logistics company. We want to connect the point of production of hydrogen with the point of consumption.”
Owing to demand for clean energy, Universal predicts its technology will take off. It estimates annual revenue could hit $1 billion by 2030, and up to $100 billion by 2040. That last figure assumes Universal cracks the single-aisle jetliner market and supplies the burgeoning air taxi segment, known as urban air mobility.
“It is very energy dense and is completely clean,” Eremenko says of hydrogen fuel. The by-product, he adds, is water.
Unlike today’s batteries, hydrogen has sufficient “gravimetric energy density” for airliner applications, he adds.
Hydrogen can be used to create electricity in fuel cells, or burned by gas turbines. It can also be used to make synthetic fuel.
Though Universal’s ultimate goal is supply, the company will first “get the market going” by developing the Dash 8-300 system, with an in-service goal of 2024.
De Havilland did not respond to a request for comment.
Universal has “designed a retrofit package for existing regional aircraft using mature electric motor and fuel-cell technologies,” it says.
The company will work with the Federal Aviation Administration to achieve a supplemental type certificate for the modified Dash 8-300. It intends to make the design available to the industry to aid development of other hydrogen-powered aircraft, Eremenko says.
Universal’s hydrogen storage system must also be certificated by the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
“We are under no illusion that certification is easy,” Eremenko says.
Notably, Universal intends to subsidise up to 100% the cost to airlines of modifying Dash 8-300s in exchange for long-term contracts to supply hydrogen fuel.
Eremenko declines to name potential airline partners. Carriers worldwide operate some 182 Dash 8-300s. US airlines do not operate the type, but Canada’s Jazz and its affiliated companies have 19 in-service Dash 8-300s and another 10 in storage, according to Cirium fleets data.
Eremenko launches Universal after stints in high-level positions at major aerospace manufacturers. In 2019 he left his post as chief technology officer at Raytheon, then known as United Technologies.
There he helped form United Technologies Advanced Projects (UTAP), a division tasked with developing hybrid-electric propulsion for a Dash 8-100.
Before that he was at Airbus, joining that company in 2015 to get its Silicon Valley innovation arm A^3 off the ground. A year later Eremenko became Airbus’s chief technology officer.
Eremenko also worked at Motorola, Google and the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
He says he struggled to significantly advance technical innovation at the big companies.
“I think my track record and both Airbus and UTC suggests that I tried very hard to make step changes,” he says. “From within the aerospace [industry] it is very difficult to do things that are non-incremental.”
Co-founders of Universal include Jon Gordon, a corporate attoney with technology, aerospace and clean-energy experience, John-Paul Clarke, an aeronautics professor and former UTC vice-president for strategic technologies, and Jason Chua, who had headed UTAP. Chua is Universal’s chief operations officer.
Universal has 15 staff, and in about six months has completed some $5 million worth of engineering work, including work with partners.
Eremenko declines to name those partners, citing Securities and Exchange Commission restrictions. He estimates the company will need $300 million in funding to make its vision a reality.
CAPSULES AND MODULES
Universal’s envisioned hydrogen supply system will use “modules”, each carrying two hydrogen-storage “capsules”.
Universal would fill the capsules at hydrogen production sites and ship them to airports via existing global containerised freight networks, which Eremenko calls the “most-efficient transportation network in the world”.
The modules could be loaded onto aircraft using equipment as common as forklifts and will integrate with existing air freight systems, meaning they can be easily rolled aboard.
The plan calls for the modules to be carried in the rear of modified Dash 8-300s.
The aircraft could carry two or three hydrogen modules, equating to four or six hydrogen capsules.
The aircraft will need to be plumbed so that hydrogen can flow from the rear capsules to fuel cells in the aircraft’s nacelles.
Fuel cells use hydrogen and air to produce electricity. The Dash 8-300 would carry the resulting emission – water – in onboard tanks if atmospheric and flight conditions result in contrails, which can contribute to global warming, Eremenko says.
The Dash 8-300’s aft service door must be “expanded a little” to accommodate the modules. And because fuel cells can have delayed power response to throttle commands, each propulsion system needs a lithium-ion battery to provide immediate but transient power, Eremenko says.
The modules will not diminish a Dash 8’s cargo capacity but will require removing 10 seats, bringing capacity from 50 to 40 passengers.
But Eremenko insists the hydrogen and electric system’s improved efficiency and reduced maintenance requirements will give the aircraft seat-per-mile costs comparable to traditional Dash 8-300s.
With gaseous hydrogen, the Dash 8’s range would be about 400nm, Eremenko says.
Airlines will likely use gaseous hydrogen for up to 90% of their operations because average turboprop flights are about 300nm in distance, says Eremenko. The longer remaining routes would require liquid fuel.
Fuel cells actually only accept hydrogen in gas form, but stored-liquid hydrogen still works with the system. That is because during transfer from the tanks to the cells, the hydrogen would warm, and as it warms it becomes gas, Eremenko says.
CERTIFICATION AND SUPPLY
Universal has laid out a three-part, three-to-four-year development strategy.
During the initial one-year phase the company intends to build and test its hydrogen capsules, demonstrate related logistics and develop an “aircraft-scale ground testbed”.
During a second phase, lasting 12-18 months, Universal aims to receive flight and transport certification of its capsule. It will also test a “capsule health monitoring system”, launch flight tests and market the system and its hydrogen supply network to airlines.
“Mass industrialisation of hydrogen capsules” would follow during a third phase lasting another 12-18 months. During that time Universal aims for the Federal Aviation Administration issue a supplemental type certificate for a Dash 8-300 powered by the technology.
“The regional market, with conservative penetration assumptions, is sufficient to make Universal Hydrogen a profitable, $1 billion revenue company within the decade,” Universal says.
It envisions hydrogen-fuel systems being integrated into large regional aircraft such as Dash 8-400s or ATR 72s, which would require 3.5MW powerplants. Ultimately, the company hopes to win a place on Airbus and Boeing next-generation narrowbody programmes.
Those companies are widely expected to launch replacements for their 737s and A320s in the coming decade, but neither has committed to such projects or propulsion details.
Universal says development of large hydrogen-powered jets “seems likely”.
He notes hydrogen is already widely employed in many industries. Some ground vehicles like buses burn hydrogen.
The technology is safe and it works, but infrastructure challenges have kept hydrogen from mainstream aviation, says Eremenko.
Major airframers like Boeing and Airbus have also worked on fuel cell development. So have start-ups like UK company Electric Aviation Group, which is studying fuel-cell technology it hopes could be integrated into a Dash 8-400.
US supersonic business jet developer Aerion Supersonic is working with Canadian company Carbon Engineering to develop synthetic fuel made from hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
A 22 June study by European Union research programme Clean Sky concluded hydrogen will “play a key role” in making aviation “a zero-carbon, climate-neutral system over the next few decades”.
Industry standard setter ICAO set the goal for the industry to reduce its carbon dioxide output by 2050 to half of 2005 levels.
Considering the significant energy-density limitations of batteries, clean hydrogen fuel represents the only viable path toward eliminating aviation’s carbon output, says Eremenko.
Story updated on 27 and 28 August to correctly spell Jon Gordon’s name, and to note that average turboprop flights are 300nm, that hydrogen turns to gas as it warms and that Aerion is workling with Carbon Engineering.