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17 Dutch companies build first hydrogen-powered aircraft

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By 2028, the first medium-sized passenger plane should be able to fly on green hydrogen from Amsterdam to London. In doing so, some 17 companies, including Fokker and TU Delft, are converting an existing propeller plane into a hydrogen-electric aircraft. Michel van Ierland of Unified International is bringing those parties together as an entrepreneur.

Flying causes a lot of CO2 emissions. That’s why companies are working hard to develop sustainable alternatives, such as electric or hydrogen-powered planes. But why do it on your own? Unified International brought parties in the aircraft industry in the Netherlands together to build the first hydrogen-powered passenger plane. “From 2028 onwards we will be competing with engine manufacturers and have a completely new, green product in the market.”

How do you ensure rapid sustainability?

“We have an awful lot of aviation knowledge at our disposal in the Netherlands. We have been making aircraft for over a hundred years. For example, around Technology Park Ypenburg in The Hague you have a cluster of manufacturing companies. Eindhoven is home to the engine companies and Twente to many materials companies. We thought: how can we make maximum use of all this knowledge?

Together with Innovation Quarter, we brought 17 companies together in a consortium and are building the first medium-sized converted hydrogen-powered aircraft. The new plane does not emit CO2 but just water, which makes flying a lot less polluting. Moreover, we are reusing many aircraft parts, such as the Airframe, the structure of the aircraft. The engine becomes green and the frames can be used a lot longer, doubly sustainable.

Sustainability is of course essential, but there has to be a business case in it. In the end, you have to be able to compete and earn your place in the next generation of aircraft.

“The hydrogen plane can cover a distance of up to 750 kilometers. That’s a distance from London to Amsterdam. Or you can use it to operate flights between islands in the Caribbean. The ticket price will be some 5 to 10 percent more expensive than current prices. Research shows that consumers are willing to pay that amount of money if they know they are flying a completely green, zero-emission solution.

To make the hydrogen airplane, we convert a propeller airplane. Several types of propeller planes around the world are eligible for this. So these are mainly aircraft that do not travel too long distances, about 750 kilometers. Eventually we will also need large hydrogen-powered aircraft that can fly further, but that will probably take until 2040. We don’t want to wait for that, we need to get started now.”

What type of leader is needed to do that?

“To bring all those parties together, you need a real bridge builder. Someone who brings people together and has an overview of the knowledge position we have. We want to pioneer and make an impact. And that is only possible by doing our homework, making a robust plan and involving people both internally and externally. By being open to criticism we stay sharp. But the most important thing of all is to stay on course. If we keep our goal in mind, to make the first hydrogen flight between Amsterdam and London possible in 2028, we will all be working towards that.”

What challenges are there?

“In terms of technology, there are really still points that we need to pay extra attention to. But in the Netherlands we have a lot of technical partners. To arrive at a solution, it works to put technical people together, close the door and only open it again when there is an answer to the question. This kind of pressure cooker session works very well with a technical team.

Another challenge is in gaining trust. The technology is not new and we need to bring it together for an airborne application. So we need to get the benefit of the doubt. We have been awarded an investment from the Growth Fund as part of the Aviation in Transition program and we are immensely proud of that. By doing that, they are showing that they are giving a company like ours a boost on a program that matters.”

Sustainable flying: electric or hydrogen?

“For short distances and fewer passengers, electric flying is also an interesting option. But for longer distances and more passengers you really need hydrogen. It has a high energy density and is a good energy carrier. It does take up a lot of volume, which means we have to remove a number of rows of seats from the aircraft. But on the other hand, you ‘burn it off’ on the way, making the aircraft lighter and more efficient. Batteries don’t get lighter when they consume energy. What you start with, you end up with. With hydrogen, that’s a lot more efficient.”

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