18 May 2024

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

Heart, Embraer and Universal Hydrogen join Air New Zealand’s zero-emission regional aircraft programme

Air New Zealand has named Heart Aerospace, Embraer and Universal Hydrogen as new partners in its Mission Next Generation Aircraft accelerator research programme to help identify low-or-no emission technology to replace or upgrade its fleet of 23 Q300 turboprop aircraft. The companies will join Airbus and turboprop manufacturer ATR as long-term partners for the airline as it seeks not only a sustainably-powered regional aircraft from 2030 but also clean energy and infrastructure. Also joining the programme is the Robinson Research Institute of New Zealand’s Victoria University, a specialist in superconducting technologies, which will help Air New Zealand to evaluate and validate new propulsion technologies. More than 30 aircraft developers responded to a call by the airline in late 2021 for ideas and insights to guide the transition of its short-haul fleet to more sustainable aircraft, with an aim to fly its first commercial demonstrator flight by 2026.

“This isn’t about selecting a new aircraft,” said the airline’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Kiri Hannifin. “It’s about growing our collective understanding to advance a new era of travel.

“Through our partnerships with Airbus and ATR, we’ve been able to deepen our understanding of the impact green hydrogen and battery-hybrid aircraft may have on our network, operations and infrastructure, as well as the opportunities and challenges of flying low and zero-emissions aircraft in New Zealand. Adding Universal Hydrogen, Embraer and Heart Aerospace will broaden our knowledge of the technologies being developed for potential future aircraft.”

The latest partners are developing or considering a range of zero-emission alternatives to current fossil-fuelled regional aircraft. Heart Aerospace is targeting 2028 to introduce into service the ES-30, a battery-electric regional plane, while Embraer is assessing hybrid-electric, fully electric and hydrogen fuel cell concepts for introduction between 2030 and 2035. Universal Hydrogen is developing a dual programme, in which existing aircraft are modified to use capsules of hydrogen fuel, which are transported to airports and loaded directly onto the planes they will power, instead of using fixed refuelling infrastructure.    

The Heart Aerospace ES-30 is designed to deliver flexible range and capacity to meet various regional airline requirements while producing zero emissions. With a standard seating capacity of 30 passengers, Heart says the aircraft will have a fully-electric flight range of 200 kilometres or an extended range of 400 kilometres using a reserve hybrid engine powered by sustainable aviation fuel, and will even stretch to 800 kilometres with 25 passengers. As well as major customers including United Airlines, Mesa Air Group and Air Canada, New Zealand regional operator Sounds Air also plans to introduce the ES-30. “We firmly believe that the collaborative approach is the only way to ensure that we have a sustainable future for aviation,” said Heart’s CCO Simon Newitt.

Arjan Meijer, CEO of Embraer Commercial Aviation, welcomed his company’s selection by Air New Zealand as a long-term partner in the Mission Next Gen Aircraft programme and said the airline had also agreed to join Embraer’s Energia Advisory Group, a collective of airlines, aircraft lessors, manufacturers and other aviation stakeholders consulting on the development of a new sustainable aircraft model. As well as smaller regional fleets, the Energia project is examining future sustainable aircraft seating up to 50 passengers.

“As the global leader in regional aircraft, Embraer is ideally positioned to bring disruptive technologies to smaller aircraft first,” said Meijer. “Air New Zealand, operator of a large, complex and diverse regional network, is the perfect collaborator, and we’re proud to be part of this initiative. Smaller regional aircraft are going to be the first platforms on which new fuel and propulsion systems can be introduced effectively. Embraer looks forward to contributing to Air New Zealand’s initiative and adding their expertise and requirements to Embraer’s Energia project.”

Universal Hydrogen said its modular strategy sidestepped the need for new refuelling infrastructure at airports, enabled faster fuelling of aircraft and reduced transfer losses throughout the hydrogen delivery chain. “We are pleased that Air New Zealand, one of the largest turboprop fleet operators in the world, has endorsed our hydrogen retrofit solution and infrastructure-light modular fuel delivery system,” said Paul Eremenko, CEO and co-founder of Universal Hydrogen. “We look forward to a fruitful collaboration that will help launch a new golden age of aviation.”

Its selection as a partner in the Air New Zealand programme coincided with Universal’s approval by the US Federal Aviation Administration to operate the first flight of its hydrogen-powered testbed aircraft – a converted Q300, the same type that the airline wants to replace or re-power.  The FAA has granted Universal a special airworthiness certificate in the ‘Experimental’ category, clearing the way for the prototype, dubbed ‘Lightning McClean’, to commence test flights at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lakes, Washington.  

The prototype aircraft has just completed its first taxi tests to assess ground handling qualities and the performance of the megawatt-class hydrogen fuel cell powertrain fitted in one of its engine nacelles. This powertrain is in a similar configuration to Universal’s first product, a conversion kit for ATR 72-600 turboprops, a type which Air New Zealand also operates. The Universal Hydrogen powertrain does not use a hybrid-battery system, instead transmitting power directly from hydrogen fuel cells to the electric motor, reducing the weight and lifecycle cost of the powerplant, which the company expects to be certified and in commercial service by 2025.

“We are simultaneously providing a pragmatic, near-term solution for hydrogen infrastructure and delivery, as well as for converting existing passenger aircraft to use this lightweight, safe and true zero-emissions fuel,” said Eremenko.

In December, Air New Zealand announced an initial list of partners for the programme, featuring new regional aircraft concepts representing electric, green hydrogen and hybrid propulsion options. The four partners are electric aircraft manufacturers Eviation and Beta Technologies, hybrid-electric developer VoltAero and Cranfield Aerospace, which is developing hydrogen-hybrid concepts.

With a fleet of 29 ATR 72-600 aircraft, Air New Zealand is the world’s third-largest ATR operator and the two companies say they are “deepening their existing partnership to accelerate aviation decarbonisation”. The aircraft manufacturer has launched a feasibility study on its next-generation ATR ‘EVO’ family concept, a two-engine turboprop that can be powered by 100% SAF and incorporating new propellers and enhanced cabin and systems. ATR aims to launch the programme this year and anticipates entry into service by 2030.

“ATR fully shares Air New Zealand’s ambition to accelerate the transition towards net-zero carbon emissions. Having worked together since 2018 to explore new propulsion technologies and their impact on operations and infrastructure, we are now taking this partnership to the next level,” said Nathalie Tarnaud Laude, ATR’s CEO. “With Mission Next Gen Aircraft, we will be supporting the airline in every step of this challenging adventure in investigating disruptive innovations to turn our commitments into tangible reality.”

Responded Hannifin: “Through our partnerships with Airbus and ATR, we’ve been able to deepen our understanding of the impact green hydrogen and battery hybrid aircraft may have on our network, operations and infrastructure, as well as the opportunities and challenges of flying low and zero emissions aircraft in New Zealand. Working with the world’s leading innovators is critical to addressing the climate crisis.

“These partners were selected because they are taking action now to progress decarbonising the aviation industry.”

Image: Heart Aerospace ES-30

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