It is only a matter of time (and lots of money) before the conversation around alternative fuels and electric propulsion takes over every facet of aviation. Bell training helicopters are flying using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Safran Engines completed its test campaign using 100% SAF just this month. And now there is a timeline for the world’s first hydrogen helicopter – the PA-890 – which aims to enter commercial service in 2025.
“As the world transitions to electrified transportation, hydrogen fuel cells cannot be ignored,” John Piasecki, president and CEO of R&D and flight-testing business, Piasecki Aircraft, tells Helicopter Investor.
The reasons for helicopter operators or OEMs to move to hydrogen are more and more compelling: lower operating costs and a lower carbon footprint. He also says the weight reductions posed by hydrogen fuel cannot be ignored.
It is for these reasons that Piasecki Aircraft has struck a $6.5m deal to work on the PA-890 helicopter with hydrogen-cell technology company, HyPoint. HyPoint’s solution is based on LTPEM (Low Temperature Proton-Exchange Membrane) and HTPEM (High Temperature Proton-Exchange Membrane) fuel cells. According to the company, these allow HyPoint to develop a lightweight, more efficient cooling system.
The deal also includes six full-scale systems for demo flying, ground tests and certification.
Piasecki says hydrogen fuel systems could be retrofitted onto existing airframes, however this process would be more difficult than starting afresh. “Your flexibility when you’re modifying something is a lot less than when you’re developing something new,” he says. The PA-890 will see a larger volume of storage tanks than those on traditional helicopters.
Dr Alex Ivanenko, founder and CEO of HyPoint, told Helicopter Investor: “I don’t think it will be a big deal for helicopters to use hydrogen at all. The infrastructure is a question of a few million dollars investment in any airport that wants to use hydrogen.”
Airports have the necessary certificates to use hydrogen, but Ivanenko says the questions arise with storage and additional filling infrastructure. “You don’t need to completely reorganise your airport’s design,” said Ivanenko.
“My main concern is the volume of hydrogen. Now, it seems that we have to increase by many times the generation of hydrogen,” he said.
This is why HyPoint is building its R&D and production site in the UK. “Right now we are considering two main markets: the UK and US. The UK specifically is the capital of hydrogen aviation. It supports many initiatives and is two years ahead of the US. Both have a high level of acceptance to the technology.”
Players in the air taxi market might argue that battery technology could replace traditional fossil fuels first, but Piasecki believes there is more to consider.
“The energy density potential of batteries is limited. And the cost of the batteries, because of their cycle life, is a lot more than people have considered,” he said.
HyPoint is aiming to provide its technology from logistics drone and eVTOL air taxis to helicopters and eventually wide-body jets.
The earliest use cases for Piasecki’s PA-890 are likely to be with its launch customers in the medical logistics and services sector, as well as passenger-carrying missions. Particularly those fleet operators who have the infrastructure and resources to be able to support the introduction of a hydrogen platform. “You need customers at the outset that need critical mass,” he said.
Piasecki said there are also two key parameters for adoption by the defence sector. These are lower aerial logistics – costs – saving on using electric propulsion – and the lower carbon impact for governments.
PA-890 is targeting a 50% reduction in operating costs. “For today’s operators, the direct operating cost is the number one priority,” says Piasecki.
Ivanenko adds: “We believe the certified, commercial product will be ready to use by 2025.”
HyPoint aims to complete a 150kw, full-scale system for a demonstration flight for hydrogen aircraft-developer ZeroAvia by the end of 2022. And in 2023, HyPoint hopes to build Piasecki’s system for ground testing.
Piasecki concluded: “There’s plenty more for us to do. The hydrogen fuel cell solution requires rigorous testing and development. The technology has got to be scaled and validated. We’re excited and we think there’s a lot of potential!”