HyPoint Advances Hydrogen Fuel Cells for Electric Aircraft

 - July 10, 2020, 5:47 AM
HyPoint is making progress with the development of hydrogen fuel cells suitable for powering both eVTOL and electric fixed-wing aircraft.

Hydrogen fuel cell developer HyPoint expects to have a full-scale 150-kW system ready to deliver to an undisclosed electric aircraft manufacturer during the first quarter of 2022. The California-based startup aims to announce the identity of this partner in September and hopes to have a 1-kW unit ready for testing by early 2021, followed by a 15-kW unit, as part of its strategy to advance hydrogen propulsion systems as an alternative to both battery-dependent motors and hybrid systems using jet-A-powered engines. 

HyPoint small drone fuel cells
HyPoint is already providing hydrogen fuel cells for small drones.

In June, Urban Aeronautics signed a memorandum of understanding under which HyPoint will provide zero-carbon hydrogen fuel cell technology for its planned CityHawk eVTOL aircraft. The Israeli company aims to have a hydrogen-powered version of this six-seat design ready to enter service between 2028 and 2030, after a planned first flight with an earlier hybrid-electric version by early 2023.

According to co-founder and CEO Alex Ivanenko, HyPoint already has a 35-kW low-temperature polymer electric membrane (LTPEM) unit ready to power drones with mtows up to 50 kg (110 pounds). It is now working on the high-temperature polymer electric membrane (HTPEM) technology required for both eVTOLs and fixed-wing aircraft and has U.S. patents pending for key aspects of its technology.

Ivanenko explained to AIN that his team is developing turbo air-cooled fuel cell systems with HTPEM bipolar plates that will deliver significantly more specific power than its existing small units for drones while minimizing parasitic mass. Acknowledging that no specific certification framework currently exists for hydrogen-powered aircraft, he said HyPoint hopes to work with regulators to develop a basis for approval.

While traditional LTPEMs cannot be used above temperatures of 80 deg C, HTPEMs can operate up to 200 deg C. The increased temperatures result in faster chemical reactions and greater efficiency, making these fuel cells more suitable for transportation applications. HTPEMs are expected to have a lifecycle of 20,000 hours, which is around four times longer than that of LTPEMs.

According to Ivanenko, power systems for aircraft need to provide at least 1.5 kW/kg of specific power and 500 Wh/kg of energy density to deliver worthwhile payload and flight duration. “Neither lithium batteries nor existing fuel cell systems for cars meet both requirements,” he maintained. “We believe that improvements in existing liquid-cooled fuel cells will not allow developers to overcome the barrier in the short term.”

HyPoint claims fuel cell powertrain design will allow it to reach 2 kW/kg of specific power and more than 1 kW/kg of energy density. It says this will be sufficient to serve the anticipated energy needs of eVTOL air taxi aircraft of 50 to 120 kW, rising to between 150 and 300 kW for larger fixed-wing electric aircraft.

According to Ivanenko, a fixed-wing aircraft is more likely to make it to market with hydrogen propulsion than one of the new eVTOL models, but he maintained that the technology is well suited to almost any design. “The problems associated with establishing the necessary ground infrastructure [to support hydrogen-powered aircraft operations] have been overstated,” he said. “In California where we are based, hydrogen is already available at many [automobile] gas stations and that’s also true in other parts of the world.”

On July 8, HyPoint announced three senior appointments to lead the company’s efforts to get its technology established on larger aircraft. The company also has joined the California Hydrogen Business Council, which also includes companies such as Honda, Ballard, Linde, Plug Power, Nel Hydrogen, and ITM Power.

Brian Benicewicz is HyPoint’s new head of science, focusing mainly on the internal chemical reactions needed to power the system. He has previously held senior academic positions at the University of South Carolina and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. Holding more than 50 U.S. patents, he founded a company called H2Pump, which makes electrochemical hydrogen purification systems, and invented the PBI high-temperature membrane used in many existing fuel cell systems. He has a Ph.D. in polymer chemistry from the University of Connecticut.

Rhonda Staudt is HyPoint’s new chief engineer of HTPEM membrane electrode assembly (MEA) with responsibility for fuel cell development, including the design of MEAs and gaskets, as well as manufacturing and tooling. She has held senior positions in the alternative energy sector for more than 15 years and is a co-founder of Combined Energies, where she directs operations focused on DC to DC converter technology. She has a Masters's degree in systems engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

John Vogel has been appointed as HyPoint’s chief engineer for HTPEM Stack, leading the development of power generation modules and many aspects of designing the stack, which covers hardware and tooling components for the fuel cell system.

HyPoint is looking to secure both short term funding from angel investors and also longer-term strategic partnerships with established aviation companies. In the meantime, Ivanenko said that it does already have an established revenue stream from the fuel cells it is providing for small drones.

This story comes from the new FutureFlight.aero resource developed by AIN to provide objective, independent coverage, and analysis of new aviation technology, including electric aircraft developments.