ZEUS: Inside the plan to build a hydrogen-fueled airplane

Paul Hutton and Cranfield Aerospace hope to fly a small plane on hydrogen fuel tanks by 2025. The UK government is betting on them.

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The Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander remains in production 55 years after its first flight in 1965. It’s used for air taxi, charter, crop-spraying; water-bombing, executive operations, photo-reconnaissance/surveillance, air ambulance, para-dropping, law enforcement and more. Photo: Britten-Norman.

(David Callaway is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Callaway Climate Insights. He is the former president of the World Editors Forum, Editor-in-Chief of USA Today and MarketWatch, and CEO of TheStreet Inc.)

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — Cranfield Aerospace is a 30-year-old startup. But it’s one that might just solve how to fly an airplane on green fuel.

The aircraft design company in Bedfordshire, 50 miles north of London, is raising money for a campaign to equip an existing, decades-old style of air taxi with tanks of hydrogen fuel cells and fly it by 2025. By simply swapping the fuel tanks, Cranfield believes it can help cut through the red tape of having to build new planes from scratch and actually test the technology with real passengers flying to real places.

If successful, the phased strategy would gradually expand the size of the planes to regional aircraft (19 seats and above) and wrap a new design around them to increase performance. All of this by about 2040.

“You have to start with the smaller airplanes,” said Paul Hutton, a former British Army officer and engineer who has been CEO of Cranfield for the past six years. “This is where the technologies are going to be proven.”

The UK government has invested £6.3 million pounds ($8.7 million) in the Cranfield project, which is about half of the £14 million pounds the company estimates it needs to complete the demonstration phase of the campaign. Turquoise International, a London-based environmental merchant bank, is leading the financing effort and at least one venture capital company has agreed to sign on, Hutton said.

“It’s step number one. No one is going to solve the problem of greening aviation with a 50-year-old airplane,” Hutton said. He explained that production regulations and competition among the largest aircraft companies, many of which are Cranfield clients, make it difficult to effect a revolution in the industry without starting at a smaller level.

Aircraft released almost a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in 2019, before the pandemic, which represents about 2.4% of the global emissions problem. But the industry is a lightning rod for criticism, as just 1% of frequent flyers are responsible for almost half of those emissions.

Many airlines and aircraft companies are experimenting with hybrid fuel models, or sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is made from feedstocks and causes somewhat less emissions than traditional aviation fuel. But Hutton argues the benefits are just not big enough to really impact climate change, and that hydrogen is the only way. Battery power, which some are experimenting with as well, will be difficult given the weight of batteries strong enough to power an aircraft, the company said.

The Cranfield plan, called Project Fresson, is laid out in four phases, with the first to attempt to fly on fuel tanks of gaseous hydrogen for a short distance, Hutton said. The company has selected the Britten-Norman Islander plane, a type of aircraft first flown in 1965, which is still used today for short hops to outer islands or as an air taxi. The first one was scheduled to be delivered to the company today.

It is the smaller flights that governments are targeting to become carbon neutral by 2030, amid concern about emissions. Some, such as France, are already restricting short-haul flights in favor of train travel. Fixing smaller aircraft first could have an outsized effect on the entire industry’s emissions output.

Once it establishes that the plane can fly people on the hydrogen fuel cell tanks, Cranfield will begin using liquid hydrogen, which is denser, and to build design modifications around the aircraft. Finally, the company will begin experimenting with larger aircraft. Hutton and the advisers have built out a revenue growth strategy from phase one that estimates revenue could grow from about £8 million or £9 million a year currently at the company to up to £900 million by 2040.

In addition to aircraft design, Cranfield and its 60 to 70 staff are known for their specialty in complex modifications, or helping modify parts and instruments on existing aircraft to meet strategy requirements. It’s this expertise that Hutton believes will help the company create the design that best uses the hydrogen technology.

One of the ideas, based on the need for more hydrogen to fly the planes, is to add fuel tanks to the fuselage, instead of just under the wings. Hutton acknowledges that hydrogen is flammable, but says in many respects it is less dangerous than traditional aircraft fuel and that using the fuselage won’t increase the danger.

On timing, Hutton said he believes the largest aircraft makers will continue experimenting with sustainable aviation fuel and gradually bring emissions down over the next decade. And that key new technologies, like Cranfield’s hydrogen strategy, will help the smaller end of the market rise to meet the larger end in the middle.

For now, all hopes lie in getting a 55-year-old model off the ground with a new technology in the next four years. It’s a start.