It’s Thursday, March 9, and hydrogen-powered aviation just passed a milestone.

Universal Hydrogen's first test flight on March 2, in Washington. Image copyright Francis Zera

Hi, I’m Claire Elise Thompson, and I’m filling in for Joseph Winters today.

Last week, the sustainable aviation company Universal Hydrogen completed its first test flight of a hydrogen-powered aircraft in Moses Lake, Washington. The plane, nicknamed Lightning McClean, was a 40-passenger regional airliner — the largest aircraft to fly on a hydrogen fuel cell to date.

Air travel is one of the most carbon-intensive actions an individual can take. If the aviation sector were its own country, it would be the world’s sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitter. As awareness of the climate perils of flying has grown, companies are looking for ways to offer greener air travel. Hydrogen is a fuel that produces no greenhouse gases when it is either burned or fed into a fuel cell to produce electricity.

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“Today will go down in the history books as the true start to the decarbonization of the global airline industry,” John Thomas, CEO of Connect Airlines, said in a statement following last week’s test flight. Connect plans to launch Universal Hydrogen’s retrofitted regional planes in the U.S. as soon as 2025.

During the 15-minute flight, an electric motor powered by a Plug Power hydrogen fuel cell ran beneath Lightning McClean’s right wing. Beneath the left wing, for safety reasons, a standard turboprop engine offered additional power. “During the second circuit over the airport, we were comfortable with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain, so we were able to throttle back the fossil fuel turbine engine to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power,” Alex Kroll, one of the test pilots, said in a press release.

Most hydrogen used today is produced from natural gas in an industrial process that releases climate pollution, but Universal Hydrogen is committed to using only green hydrogen, produced using renewable electricity. The company, whose investors include JetBlue and American Airlines, plans to retrofit existing planes to run on hydrogen power, beginning with regional airliners.

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