A new domestic entrant has emerged in the race for carbon-neutral air travel: Marina del Rey-based Hydroplane, which is developing a powertrain for a hydrogen fuel cell that can be switched over to existing general aviation aircraft.
Hydroplane announced last month that it had won a second US Air Force technology contract — worth $750,000 — to demonstrate hydrogen fuel cell technology in aircraft on the ground and in the air. At the same time, the company announced that it recently closed a funding round that raised $2 million from anonymous angel investors.
A seaplane fuel cell is essentially a hydrogen ion battery: hydrogen gas is broken down to form hydrogen ions that flow through the battery system to generate about 200 kilowatts of power to power the aircraft. The only emission is water.
“We are completely decarbonizing air travel,” said Anita Sungupta, founder and CEO of Hydroplane.
Sungupta hopes to conduct the first rigorous flight tests using hydrogen fuel cell technology on Piper Aircraft Inc.’s general aviation aircraft. Sometime next year. The ultimate goal is to have seaplane hydrogen fuel cell technology approved for use in existing general aviation aircraft; The company is targeting the medium-large range airline market, which ranges from 200 to 600 miles.
Sungupta is a propulsion systems engineer who has spent 16 years working with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada-Flintridge. She has worked on numerous space missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory portion of the Mars Curiosity spacecraft, the Deep Space 1 spacecraft that flies over an asteroid, and the Dawn spacecraft that orbits the large asteroids Vesta and Ceres.
After a brief stint as senior vice president of systems engineering for Virgin Hyperloop, a developer of magnetic levitation trains in downtown, Sungupta decided to go it alone and launched the Hydroplane in the spring of 2020, just as the pandemic spread.
She used her expertise in ion propulsion at NASA and applied ion technology in an effort to develop a hydrogen fuel cell that could power an aircraft.
“The key to decarbonizing aircraft is energy storage,” Songupta said. Because batteries and other energy storage systems tend to be bulky, using a large amount of storage is difficult on an airplane, as every extra pound of weight reduces lift capacity. As a result, there is a strict limit to the amount of mass that can be used to store energy.
“Conventional lithium-ion batteries only last about an hour in flight, which means you can only fly 100 miles or so. Hydrogen fuel cells have 10 times the energy storage for the same amount of mass, allowing you to fly for much longer periods and therefore covering much longer distances.”
Sungupta said this expands the range to about 600 miles maximum, taking the cool area 200 to 500 miles for most general aviation flights.
Targeting the mid-range market
Seaplanes are entering an increasingly crowded market for aircraft with zero or low carbon emissions. Much of the main interest in recent years has been the development of electric power train vertical take-off and landing aircraft, led by Santa Cruz-based Joby Aviation. The aircraft developed by Joby is designed for the domestic air taxi market and has a maximum range of 150 miles.
But efforts are increasing to target the 250- to 600-mile midrange market, primarily through powertrain conversions for existing general aviation aircraft. (Larger commercial aircraft are currently out of reach, since the amount of power required to lift them is too large for current low- or low-carbon powertrain technologies.)
Two other local companies — both based in Hawthorne — aim at this market: Ampaire Inc. , which is developing a hybrid gas-electric powertrain that could be switched over to Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft; and Universal Hydrogen, which last October raised $62 million to fund testing of hydrogen fuel cell modifications for regional general aviation aircraft.
Earlier this month, Universal Hydrogen signed an agreement with Connect Airlines, a division of Bedford, Massachusetts-based Waltzing Matilda Aviation, to convert 75 regional general aviation aircraft to hydrogen engines, with purchase rights for an additional 25 conversions. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2025.
All this activity on the powertrain front of the hydrogen fuel cell is shattering the common belief that hydrogen fuel cells are too heavy for long-haul air travel, according to Daryl Swanson, a familiar and familiar Daryl Swanson, Advanced Aviation Mobility Consultant in Newbury, UK. with a seaplane.
“Hydrogen fuel cell technology was not developed for aircraft — it was developed for ground vehicles, where weight is not an important factor,” Swanson said. “What Sungupta is doing is redesigning the hydrogen fuel cell for space applications, giving it a higher energy density for the same amount of mass.”
Another major focus of the Hydroplane approach is its use of existing aircraft, rather than designing an entirely new aircraft. Not only does this save time in the development process, but it also provides an easier path for a technology to obtain a crucial FAA flight certification.
“The aerial structure has already been adopted,” Swanson said. “This means less needs for certification. For Joby and other companies (EVT) they have to get all components of the plane certified, not just the monorail. That takes a lot of time.”
In an effort to make certification easier, Hydroplane pursued US Air Force contracts, with the goal of obtaining certification from the Air Force for its technology. The first contract, worth $150,000, came in 2020, right after the company was founded. Awarded through the Air Force’s Agility Prime Program, which invests in advanced air mobility technologies in hopes of achieving military airworthiness.
Sungupta said the contract helped Hydroplane launch research and development efforts.
The latest Air Force Hydroplane contract announced last month, worth $750,000, allows the company, in partnership with the University of Houston, to demonstrate a hydrogen fuel cell-based engineering model on a ground and flight demonstration. Songupta said she hopes the flight will be shown next year.
She added that she believes that obtaining military certification for Hydroplane technology will ease the path to FAA certification. She noted that Joby Aviation had taken a similar approach; That company announced in December 2020 that it had obtained its airworthiness certificate from the US Air Force, and then in May, just 17 months later, it announced its FAA certification.
But Swanson said that even with the military’s seal of approval, getting the Hydroplane’s FAA-certified technology remains the company’s toughest near-term hurdle.
“Once her team (Sungupta) gets FAA certification – assuming they can get it – it should be fairly easy sailing,” Swanson said. “The demand for carbon-neutral air travel in this (miles) range is definitely there – more than the domestic air taxi market.”