Hydrogen-based aviation takes off
March 10, 2022
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  • The Albuquerque International Sunport could become ground zero for the birth of hydrogen-based aviation, thanks to an out-of-state company that plans to build a manufacturing plant there for new hydrogen technology that it has developed.

    Universal Hydrogen – an international firm with operations in California, Washington and Toulouse, France – will invest $254 million in a new factory at the Sunport, potentially employing up to 500 people there, the company announced Thursday afternoon in a news conference with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

    The firm has created drop-in technology to retrofit existing planes to allow them to fly on hydrogen, plus modular storage capsules – or hydrogen fuel packs – that can be safely shipped to airports around the world to power up newly converted, hydrogen-based aircraft.

    The company will manufacture both the hydrogen fuel capsules and its plane-retrofit technology, which it calls “powertrain conversion kits,” at the planned Sunport factory, said Jon Gordon, Universal Hydrogen co-founder and general counsel.

    “We’re developing something considered improbable just a few years ago – a zero-carbon aviation solution,” Gordon told reporters. “And we’ll be doing it very soon here in New Mexico.”

    The state will contribute $10 million in Local Economic Development Act funding for the project, which could have a $700 million economic impact here over the next 10 years, Lujan Grisham said during the news conference at Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town.

    Universal Hydrogen’s decision to locate in Albuquerque will elevate the state’s image as a leader in global efforts to eliminate carbon emissions in hard-to-decarbonize sectors of the economy, the governor said.

    “This company can deliver a net-zero carbon footprint in aviation, making New Mexico one of the top leaders in this space around the world,” she said. “It shows New Mexico is leading on this frontier.”

    Hydrogen is rapidly gaining ground among government and industry worldwide as a clean-burning alternative to fossil fuels that can help decarbonize things like aviation, long-haul trucking and heavy manufacturing operations. Electricity from renewable solar or wind generation is difficult, if not impossible, to apply in those areas, making alternatives like hydrogen an attractive option, said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

    “Aviation is going to be one of the most difficult sectors of our economy to decarbonize,” Heinrich said in a statement. “The clean hydrogen capsules that Universal Hydrogen plans to manufacture in Albuquerque will be central to reducing carbon pollution in air transportation – a major contributor to our climate crisis.”

    Universal’s aircraft retrofit technology and fuel storage capsules are well advanced, Gordon told reporters. It currently has agreements with 11 aviation companies to retrofit nearly 100 turboprop aircraft, with a goal for those planes to be in commercial service with full Federal Aviation Administration certification by 2025.

    “Hydrogen is the best and only scalable solution to truly decarbonize aviation, and we want to bring it to market decades sooner than anyone thought possible,” Gordon said.

    Once Universal proves its retrofit technology on the turboprop planes, it plans to apply it to larger commercial aircraft, and to other things like drones, ground transportation and industrial equipment.

    Apart from the retrofit, or powertrain conversion kits, Universal’s modular storage capsules can provide a cost-effective, alternative solution for delivering hydrogen wherever it’s needed with existing infrastructure. It eliminates the need to build new pipelines, tankers or hydrogen storage facilities, Gordon said.

    Universal signed a letter of intent with the city of Albuquerque to build its new factory on 50 acres of land northeast of the Sunport passenger terminal. That area used to occupy a north-south runway, but it was decommissioned in 2012.

    The city is expected to serve as fiscal agent for the state’s LEDA grant to Universal Hydrogen. The City Council must still approve Albuquerque’s participation, which could include an additional $2 million in municipal economic development funding for the project.

    Factory construction is expected to generate more than 1,200 jobs over the next two years.

    The plant is targeted to open in 2024 to meet the company’s retrofit contracts for turboprop aircraft.

    “We want those planes to be in the air by 2025,” Gordon told reporters. “We need to hit the ground running.”

    During the news conference, the governor also signed an executive order to create a new “coordinating council” of state Cabinet officials to pursue more hydrogen development in New Mexico, and to facilitate cooperation with Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to collectively win federal assistance to build a regional “hydrogen hub.”

    The governors of all four states signed a memorandum of understanding in February to work together to win a slice of $8 billion in federal funding that’s earmarked under President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment plan to develop four hydrogen hubs around the country.