A new local participant has appeared in the Carbon-Free Air Travel Race: Hydroplane Ltd., based in Marina del Rey. The company is developing a hydrogen fuel cell power unit that can be replaced by existing general aircraft.
Hydroplane announced last month that it had won a second $ 750,000 technology contract with the U.S. Air Force to demonstrate hydrogen fuel cell technology both on the ground and in the air. At the same time, the company recently announced the end of a financing period that attracted $ 2 million from unknown angel investors.
The fuel cell of a hydroplane is essentially a hydrogen ion battery: hydrogen gas is broken down to form hydrogen ions that pass through the battery system to generate about 200 kilowatts of energy to power the aircraft. Emission is only water.
“We are completely decarbonizing air travel,” said Anita Sungupta, founder and CEO of Hydroplane.
At some point next year, Piper Aircraft Inc. hopes to conduct the first serious flight tests using hydrogen fuel cell technology in general aircraft. The ultimate goal is to certify Hydroplane’s hydrogen fuel cell technology for use in existing general aircraft; The company targets a large mid-range flight market of 200 to 600 miles.
Sungupta is a propulsion system engineer who worked for 16 years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada-Flintridge. He has worked on several space missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory of the Mars Curiosity spacecraft, the Deep Space 1 spacecraft with an asteroid in flight, and the Dawn spacecraft orbiting major asteroids Vesta and Ceres.
After a brief stint as senior vice president of system engineering at Virgin Hyperloop, a downtown magnetic levitation train designer, Sungupta decided to retire on his own, launching Hydroplane in the spring of 2020, as a pandemic.
He used his experience in ion movement at NASA and applied ion technology to create a hydrogen fuel cell that could power an aircraft.
“The key to de-carbonizing aircraft is energy storage,” Sungupta said. Because batteries and other energy storage systems are massive, it is difficult to use large amounts of memory on an aircraft that reduces the carrying capacity of each extra kilogram. As a result, the amount of mass that can be used to store energy is severely limited.
“Conventional lithium-ion batteries last only an hour during a flight, which means you can only fly about 100 miles. Hydrogen fuel cells have 10 times the energy reserve for the same mass, which allows you to fly longer and therefore travel longer distances.
Sungupta said it expanded the distance to a maximum of about 600 miles, taking the sweet spot between 200 and 500 miles for the most common air travel.
Targets mid-level market
Hydroplane is entering an increasingly dense market for aircraft with zero or low carbon emissions. In recent years, the focus has been on the development of vertical take-off and landing planes for an electric train led by Joby Aviation in Santa Cruz. The plane, designed by Joby, is designed for the local air taxi market and can fly 150 miles.
However, efforts are being made to target a medium-range market of between 250 and 600 miles, primarily through the conversion of existing general aircraft power units. (Larger commercial aircraft are still unavailable because the amount of energy required to lift them is too large for current zero or low carbon emission power generation technologies.)
Two other local companies, both based in Hawthorne, are targeting this market: Ampaire Inc., which is developing a hybrid gas-electric power unit that can be converted to a Cessna Grand Caravan; and Universal Hydrogen Co. raised $ 62 million last October to test the development of hydrogen fuel cells for regional general aircraft.
Earlier this month, Universal Hydrogen Mass-based Waltzing signed a contract with Connect Airlines, the Bedford division of Matilda Aviation, to convert 75 regional general aircraft into hydrogen power units and purchase them for an additional 25 conversions. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2025.
All of this activity on the hydrogen fuel cell power front reflects the long-standing belief that hydrogen fuel cells are too heavy for long-distance air travel, according to Darrell Swanson, a leading aviation consultant based in Newbury, UK. by hydroplane.
“Hydrogen fuel cell technology wasn’t designed for airplanes – it’s designed for ground vehicles where weight isn’t a significant factor,” Swanson said. “What Sungupta is doing is redesigning the hydrogen fuel cell for aerospace applications, giving it a higher energy density for the same mass.”
Another key aspect of Hydroplane’s approach is the use of existing aircraft, as opposed to the design of a completely new aircraft. Not only does this save time in the development process, but it also provides an easier way for the technology to obtain an important flight certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“The air frame is already certified,” Swanson said. “It means there is less need for certification. For Joby and other companies (electric vertical takeoff and landing), they must certify not only the electric train, but all aircraft components. It takes more time. “
In an effort to further facilitate certification, Hydroplane has entered into agreements with the US Air Force to familiarize the Air Force with its technology. The first contract of $ 150,000 came in 2020, immediately after the company was founded. He was awarded through the Agility Prime program, which invests in advanced air mobility technologies in the hope of achieving the Air Force’s airworthiness.
Sungupta said the deal helped Hydroplane launch research and development efforts.
The $ 750,000 Air Force contract, announced last month, allows Hydroplane to work with the University of Houston to demonstrate an hydrogen-based engineering model in ground and flight demonstrations. Sungupta said he hoped the flight demonstration would take place next year.
He added that obtaining a military certificate for Hydroplane technology would facilitate the FAA certification process. He noted that Joby Aviation has taken a similar approach; The company announced that it had received a US Air Force airworthiness certificate in December 2020, and then in May, just 17 months later, announced an FAA certificate.
But Swanson said that even with the military approval stamp, the FAA’s certification of Hydroplane technology remains the company’s most difficult obstacle in the near future.
“Once his (Sungupta’s) team gets the FAA certificate – assuming they can – it will be easy enough to swim,” Swanson said. “There is definitely a demand for carbon-free air travel in this (mileage) range – more than the local air taxi market.”