Fuel Cells in Airplanes: Flying on Hydrogen Wings

March 18, 2021

Air transportation is a massive contributor to CO2 emissions, with more than 900 million tons emitted per year. And this could double by 2050 with only 3-4 percent growth per year, according to a 2020 Hydrogen in Aviation report. Hydrogen propulsion could significantly reduce the role of aviation in climate change by eliminating CO2 emissions in flight.

According to Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen, “Hydrogen is probably the only solution that the industry has to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and really making meaningful steps towards decarbonization. The reason for that is . . . aviation is an extremely weight sensitive application. Hydrogen is an extraordinarily weight efficient energy carrier.”

But there’s a lot of work needed to make this solution a reality. Airplanes must be modified to operate on fuel cell power, storing and using hydrogen as fuel, and fueling networks must be developed in order to supply hydrogen to airports around the world. Any time an industry faces seismic change, it can seem daunting—at Plug Power, we’ve been building the future for decades. We know what it takes to get the job done. 

In September 2020, Plug Power and Universal Hydrogen announced a partnership to develop, build, and certify a commercially-viable hydrogen fuel cell-based propulsion system designed to power commercial regional aircraft. On March 2, 2021, Plug Power announced that we had expanded the partnership with Universal Hydrogen to enable the completion of the construction of a subscale aircraft powertrain this summer. Success in this arena will enable the team to move to experimental flights in 2023. If that sounds a long way off, consider what you were doing in April 2019.

In order to provide hydrogen fuel needed for airplanes and the growing number of other applications requiring hydrogen, Plug Power has committed to building five regional green hydrogen facilities producing 500 tons of hydrogen per day by the end of 2025 in the United States, and we’ve already begun.

Plug Power CEO Andy Marsh stated, “I would almost say there’s a gold rush for building hydrogen facilities around the world. So, you look at Europe where 20% of the money for recovery from COVID is actually geared towards hydrogen. Between Europe and Northern Africa, they’re looking to have 80 gigawatts of capacity in place by 2030. When you start looking at the world’s energy, there were projections by people like Goldman Sachs who were saying 18% of the world’s energy will come from hydrogen by 2050. Hydrogen during the next decade starts becoming a ubiquitous fuel and, most important, it’s a green ubiquitous fuel.”

With companies like Plug Power and Universal Hydrogen leading the way, we’ll soon have cleaner, greener air transportation for passengers and freight alike. To stay up to date on the latest, follow us on Twitter.