ATR 72 Hydrogen-Electric Demonstrator Unveiled

California-based Universal Hydrogen has opened a new engineering design center in Toulouse, France.

Universal Hydrogen's modified ATR 72 in its hangar in Toulouse, France

Universal Hydrogen is using this modified ATR 72-500 hydrogen fuel demonstrator to develop its hydrogen retrofit kit. (Courtesy: Universal Hydrogen)

Leading hydrogen-electric aviation fuel developer Universal Hydrogen has unveiled its test demonstrator aircraft: a modified ATR 72-500. 

Unveiled July 11 at Universal Hydrogen’s new engineering and design center in Toulouse, France, the airplane’s powertrain has been converted from a conventional turboprop configuration to electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells. 

The California-based company—backed by JetBlue Ventures and other investors—has been developing conversion kits for ATR 72s and De Havilland Canada Dash-8s. The kits include proprietary, liquid hydrogen modular capsules intended to make green hydrogen fuel transport and loading effective and efficient.  

Universal revealed the airplane at its new facility and European headquarters—located in a hangar at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport (LFBO), where both Airbus and ATR flight test their aircraft.  

“Toulouse is the cradle of the European aerospace industry and has been an essential element of our talent and partner strategy,” said Universal Hydrogen co-founder and CEO Paul Eremenko in a statement. “We’re eager to showcase our progress toward decarbonizing aviation.”

Continued development of the fuel capsule, the company said, will be a key focus for the Toulouse team. The system “has exceeded key performance targets in latest full-scale prototype testing,” it said.  

Plans for this technology reach beyond experimental. Universal Hydrogen has already secured a deal with Connect Airlines for a firm order to convert 75 ATR 72-600s to hydrogen powertrains. The agreement includes an option to convert 25 additional aircraft. Deliveries are expected to begin in 2025.

Most carbon emissions attributed to the civil aviation industry are produced by the global fleet of narrow-body airliners, according to Universal Hydrogen. That’s why the company says it’s targeting regional and narrow-body airplanes as “near-term decarbonization opportunities.”As Airbus and other aircraft manufacturers continue to experiment with hydrogen-fueled powerplants, Universal Hydrogen is developing a hydrogen distribution network that provides green hydrogen to commercial airports worldwide.

JetBlue Ventures and Joby Aviation

JetBlue Ventures featured Universal’s ATR 72 demonstrator in a Twitter post this week, calling it “the first of its kind to run on green hydrogen power.”

The investment arm of JetBlue Airways is also a major backer of another sustainable aviation company—Joby Aviation, which has been flight testing an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxi prototype powered by lithium-ion batteries. 

But Joby’s interest in sustainable aviation fuel extends beyond lithium batteries. This past June, the California-based company revealed it had purchased hydrogen electric aircraft developer H2Fly. 

Universal’s focus on Europe is linked to the region’s increasing support for developing a hydrogen fuel ecosystem for the aviation industry.  

“The European Union has taken a leading role in developing hydrogen as a near-term decarbonization option for transport applications, including aviation,” said a statement by Pierre Farjounel, Universal Hydrogen general manager for Europe. “This is one of the main reasons we chose to have a significant EU footprint for Universal Hydrogen and we are keen to leverage Toulouse’s historical role as a leader in aerospace innovation to position the region as a leading hub in climate tech.”

Thom is a former senior editor for FLYING. Previously, his freelance reporting appeared in aviation industry magazines. Thom also spent three decades as a TV and digital journalist at CNN’s bureaus in Washington and Atlanta, eventually specializing in aviation. He has reported from air shows in Oshkosh, Farnborough and Paris. Follow Thom on Twitter @thompatterson.
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