There have been a lot of advances in human flight over the last century since the Wright Brothers first took to the skies over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. There have also been a number of setbacks, some more devastating than others. The Hindenberg Disaster in 1937, for example, took 35 lives when a hydrogen-filled airship ignited because of a static spark. Humans have avoided using hydrogen for flight since that disaster, but with the push toward sustainable and climate-friendly alternatives, hydrogen may become an option again. What will it take to develop hydrogen-powered helicopters?
The Future of Sustainable Flight
Commercial flight is one of the biggest problems when it comes to creating a sustainable future. According to the FAA, more than 45,000 flights take to the air every single day. In 2017, emissions generated by the United State’s commercial air traffic system accounted for 23.5% of the global CO2 for that year. While commercial aviation slowed dramatically during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the numbers are starting to rebound as people begin rescheduling the trips that were derailed by the pandemic.
As the world is pushing for a greener and more sustainable future, the aviation industry is looking for ways to shrink the industry’s carbon footprint. Some are working on ways to make aviation fuel sustainable as a way to reduce carbon emissions. Others are working on electric or battery-powered aircraft, though this technology isn’t feasible for large commercial planes.
Creating Hydrogen-Powered Helicopters
Hydrogen may be the most abundant element in the universe, but its inherent volatility has made its use problematic. Unlike the ill-fated Hindenburg, modern hydrogen fuel cell technology doesn’t rely on the combustion of gaseous hydrogen to generate power. Instead, the fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The reaction generates electricity, and the combination of the two creates water as its only exhaust.
The primary benefit of these fuel cells, beyond their exhaust, is the fact that it allows engineers to utilize the power of hydrogen without worrying about its volatility. Yes, hydrogen can still be dangerous, but in properly designed vehicles, it’s really no more dangerous than gasoline or diesel — which are both combustible materials as well.
A hydrogen fuel cell-powered helicopter could help to make these aircraft more sustainable in the long run. Piasecki Aircraft Corp, an aviation company that opened its doors in 1955 with the goal of pushing the helicopter industry to new heights, is working with HyPoint to create the world’s first hydrogen-powered helicopter. The eVTOL PA-890 is scheduled to make its first flight in 2023. On paper, the hydrogen fuel cells are designed to reduce operating costs by 50% while creating twice the power of a standard lithium-ion battery system.
If the 2023 test flight proves successful, it could shape the future of sustainable aviation.
Looking Toward the Future
Catching a flight is the fastest way to make your way around the globe, but it isn’t the most sustainable way to travel. Hydrogen fuel cell-powered aircraft like Piasecki’s helicopter prototype could change the way the industry approaches the concept of sustainability moving forward.
Jane Marsh, Contributor