Largest plane yet tested with hydrogen-powered engine

An electric hydrogen-powered engine has been tested by Aerospace company ZeroAvia as the power source for one of the propellers in a 19-seat aircraft. The 10-minute test flight was conducted in Cotswold Airport in Gloucestershire, UK. ZeroAvia aims to have commercial flights powered solely by hydrogen fuel cells by 2025 and is looking to submit the engine for regulatory certification in 2023. Airbus is also looking to use hydrogen fuel in developing the first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.

A Working Electric Hydrogen-Powered Engine Plane

ZeroAvia, a UK and US-based aerospace company, has achieved a major milestone in the development of zero-emission aircraft. On 20 January 2023, the company successfully tested a 19-seat aircraft powered by a hydrogen-electric engine. This marks the largest such craft to be powered with the help of a hydrogen engine yet.

hydrogen-powered engine

The 10-minute test flight was conducted at Cotswold Airport in Gloucestershire, UK. The plane was equipped with an engine that converts hydrogen fuel into electricity to power one of the plane’s two propellers. ZeroAvia aims to enable commercial flights powered only by hydrogen fuel cells by 2025.

Jacob Leachman of Washington State University said, “When people see that we can do a zero-emission flight with a clean fuel that we can create in so many places, wherever there’s electricity and water, that changes people’s minds about things.”

The demonstration also marked the first flight for the 19-seat Dornier 228 aircraft that had been converted into a test aircraft. It is a significantly larger aircraft than the six-seat Piper Malibu that ZeroAvia has been using for testing 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. That could also pave the way for a larger engine suitable for 90-seat aircraft.

The aviation start-up 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, has also previously announced plans to use hydrogen fuel in developing the first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.

Moving commercial aviation toward truly zero-emission flights would require much more than just exchanging traditional jet fuel for hydrogen fuel. The production of hydrogen fuel also requires electricity that may still come from a power grid running on fossil fuels – although researchers are looking into ways of producing hydrogen more cleanly in high-enough quantities for powering fleets of aircraft. John Hansman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said, “When you really look at trying to go to sustainable hydrogen-based aviation, you have to figure out how you’re going to get the hydrogen at scale. And we’re talking a lot of hydrogen.”

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