Hydrogen Fuel Cells for Urban Air Mobility

We recently profiled a startup that is developing a flying motorcycle to go along with a jetpack that it designed and built a few years ago. JetPack Aviation is one of a growing number of companies trying to help launch what’s become known as the urban air mobility industry. The idea is that swarms of flying contraptions will be one of the main modes of mobility in the cities of the future. One where autonomous drones and self-flying vehicles will zoom between buildings, delivering goods and people in a scene right out of movies like Blade Runner or Total Recall. Pick your dystopia. The more optimistic assumption is such a future will be powered by green energy, including the use of hydrogen fuel cell aircraft systems like the one being developed by HyPoint out of Silicon Valley.

Why Hasn’t Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology Taken Off?

It’s been a while since we wrote about fuel cell energy. It’s one of those technologies that always seems to be on the verge of breaking through but never quite hits critical mass – kind of like avocado toast. Sure, there may be a few hipster early adopters, but most of us are still quite happy eating avocado on chips made of corn and calling it guacamole. As we noted in our earlier articles on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and smartphone batteries, the technology still has a long way to go before it becomes mainstream in established industries, let alone in air transport.

While there are a handful of pure-play fuel cell stocks to invest in, they’ve performed poorly way back at the beginning of their hype cycle, and they don’t seem to do much better these days. Adoption for large-scale use cases (like what Bloom Energy is proposing) is hindered by cheap renewable alternatives like wind and solar, and retail applications remain niche.

The principle behind the technology is sound and simple enough: Hydrogen is fused chemically from the air in a process that generally resembles what happens in a battery, creating electricity to power a motor. The only byproducts are water and heat, making it a zero-emissions mode of transportation.

Schematic of a fuel cell.
Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

This is not science fiction. You can lease the 2020 Toyota Mirai at $389 for 36 months (with $2,500 down), including complementary hydrogen fuel for up to three years or $15,000. That’s about what it would cost you to lease a Tesla Model 3 if you plunked down about $4,500 at the signing. It takes all of five minutes to fill a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, while you’ll have about 45 minutes to hoard toilet paper and pork while waiting for a Tesla supercharger to finish.

Schematic of Toyota Mirai fuel cell car.
Under the hood of the Toyota Mirai. Credit: Toyota

So, why aren’t we all driving fuel cell vehicles? Infrastructure is one reason. There are only about 40 or so hydrogen fuel cell stations in the entire United States, and most of them are in California. In contrast, Tesla boasts more than 900 supercharging stations across ’Merica, not to mention other networks like ChargePoint, which has thousands of electric vehicle chargers. A bigger issue is that while hydrogen is a plentiful element, it has to be extracted from an existing compound. Most of the hydrogen fuel supply today comes from processes involving natural gas or other fossil fuels. A potentially cleaner production method, electrolysis, employs an electric current to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen – a process that still requires energy.

A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Aircraft System

Click for company website

None of that has stopped a young startup called HyPoint from developing a hydrogen fuel cell aircraft system that it believes can be competitive with lithium batteries, which have become the go-to energy source for flying cars and electric airplanes that use electric powertrains. Founded in 2018, HyPoint has raised about $1.4 million in disclosed funding, including $60,000 last November from Alchemist Accelerator. The company is mainly run by a bunch of guys named Sergey:

Leadership team at HyPoint Inc.
“Alex, we don’t really see you fitting in here, unless you can make some changes, starting with your name.” Credit: HyPoint Inc

HyPoint has produced an excellent white paper that explains its vision and technology in a way that even an MBA can understand. The trick to making electric vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles – the prevalent model for urban air mobility sci-fi visions – economically feasible is to design an energy system that balances weight, power, and energy capacity. Otherwise, your flying taxi will never get everyone to the party on time without having to stop to recharge or refuel every 20 minutes. The company contends that current lithium battery technology and competing fuel cell systems either can’t pack enough power or capacity to sustain eVTOLs for such commercial operations. 

HyPoint energy landscape.
HyPoint hits the sweet spot with its new “turbo” air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell aviation system. Credit: HyPoint

There are two types of fuel cell systems – liquid cooled and air cooled. The former are powerful and compact but heavy. The latter are light but too bulky to fit inside an eVTOL. HyPoint, however, has invented a lightweight turbo air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell aviation system. What exactly does that mean? One of the Sergeys explained to Avionics International

The idea is to boost the output power of an air-cooled fuel cell by compressing the air inside the system. We put fuel cells inside an air duct where pressurized, humidified and thermally stabilized air is circulated … this invention, which we named a ‘turbo’ air-cooled fuel cell, will increase the output power of traditional air-cooled fuel cells by 2.5 times without adding parasitic mass.

Sergey Shubenkov

The important thing to know is that those patent-pending modifications can seriously boost the power and energy density:

Comparison of specific power and energy density between HyPoint hydrogen fuel cell aviation system and other fuel cell systems.
Credit: HyPoint Inc.

At least that’s the theory, which has been tested in the lab but not on an actual whirring eVTOL bird of prey. At least not yet.

Market Potential 

HyPoint’s turbo air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell aviation system is obviously not commercial-ready. However, the company did report some modest income over the last couple of years – $280,000 in 2018 and $550,000 in 2019. Its pre-COVID-19 projections for 2020 called for about $1.5 million in revenues, though it’s unclear how they’re making money. In addition, HyPoint claimed it had “10 global customers in the pipeline” and had another $4 million in agreements with major electric airplane and eVTOL manufacturers.

Simple schematic of the turbo air-cooled fuel cell system from HyPoint.
Simple schematic of the turbo air-cooled fuel cell system from HyPoint. Credit: HyPoint Inc.
Click for company website

One potential partner for HyPoint is Joby Aviation, a Santa Cruz, California startup that has been developing an eVTOL for about a decade. Founded in 2009, the company has amassed $721 million in funding. It picked up a monster $590 million Series C in January, led by Toyota Motor Company (TM), and which was also joined by its AI venture arm. Other noteworthy names included Intel (INTC) and JetBlue (JBL). All three had also been involved in the company’s $100 million Series B two years ago. The all-electric VTOL sports six rotors and seats five, including the pilot. The aircraft can reach a max speed of 200 mph and travel 150 miles on a single charge.

Joby Aviation eVTOL
Credit: Joby Aviation

Joby Aviation is financially linked to one of the world’s major automotive manufacturers that also happens to be one of the few with a serious interest in fuel cell technology. Isn’t that interesting?

Toyota isn’t necessarily pinning its hopes for a hydrogen fuel cell-fueled industry in the United States – except maybe California – but its own domestic market. Last year, The Japan Times reported that the country was looking to double the number of hydrogen fueling stations to 160 by the time of the 2020 Olympics. While the international games have been postponed until next year, the government is still committed to promoting fuel cell technology as a viable alternative. It hopes to have 200,000 fuel-cell vehicles on the road by 2026, an ambitious goal given there are only about 3,000 today, according to the newspaper.

Is There a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Aircraft in Production?

While Joby Aviation has remained pretty quiet about what’s under the hood (or wherever one puts an electric powertrain for an eVTOL), there’s no indication that its aircraft is using fuel cell technology. There was a very interesting report back in February – about a month after Joby scored its big round with Toyota and company – about a possible hydrogen-fueled eVTOL belonging to Toyota being tested in the Mojave desert. The company was pretty mum on the project, but did tell The Drive that the aircraft was not built by Joby Aviation. 

Click for company website

It’s no secret that there is at least one startup that is developing a purpose-built hydrogen fuel cell aircraft. Founded in 2006, Alaka’i Technologies in the Boston area unveiled its six-rotor flying taxi concept, Skai, last year. The company claims Skai will be capable of flying for up to four hours across 400 miles using a liquid-cooling hydrogen fuel cell system. Wired reported that the company is led by “veterans of NASA, Raytheon, Airbus, Boeing, and the Department of Defense” – but no word on funding or investors. We’re not aviation engineers, but this thing doesn’t exactly look aerodynamic:

Alaka'i Technologies eVTOL
Credit: Alaka’i Technologies

Alaka’i plans to eventually develop a fully autonomous eVTOL but the first models will require pilots, according to the story in Wired. The company is targeting a price tag of about $200,000 and ambitiously hopes to reach production of 10,000 per year. Not sure that will fly any time soon.

Conclusion

It’s also unclear when HyPoint will be ready to put its hydrogen fuel cell aircraft system to the test. Much like autonomous cars, we’re still waiting for the urban air mobility revolution to take place. And probably much like self-driving technology, the real-world applications over the next few years will be limited to small autonomous machines delivering marijuana pizzas and medical supplies. On the ground, that means last-mile delivery robots like Nuro. In the air, we’re talking about delivery drones. Still, the hype cycle around flying machines is still on the upswing:

Gartner Hype Cycle 2019
Credit: Gartner

That means there are plenty of bullish market reports about the future of urban air mobility. A recent white paper from a UK-based aerospace trade organization quoted a McKinsey report that projects that the flying taxi market could be worth $1.6 billion by 2040, which actually doesn’t sound all that lucrative given the huge spend on R&D now. And what role fuel-cell tech will have in the future is even more up in the air, though the sector even has its own trade group, the International Hydrogen Aviation Association. 

HyPoint will need more than advocacy to get its invention into the air. It will need money. Lots of it. We’re hopeful that the company can establish more collaborations with companies like Joby Aviation – and, by extension, Toyota – that could provide the financial means to make it happen. 

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2 thoughts on “Hydrogen Fuel Cells for Urban Air Mobility

  1. Oh, God! Not the ‘hydrogen economy’ *again*!

    *Billions* have been spent in the last 50 years on this silliness and we are still no nearer to a practical, affordable and truly clean way of using it. The normal route to obtain H2 (as described in the article) is to crack it from natural gas using huge amounts of enrgy (a lot of it electrical). So no improvement there, then! The electrolysis works but uses so much energy that you would be at least 5 times better off just using the electricity in the electric motor directly (or at least via a battery). There are several aviation companies already with practical aircraft flying using electric motors for proulsion and batteries for their energy. Why re-invent the wheel for something that has be proven to be a fool’s errand multiple times over?

    The article mentions one or two reasons why this is the case. In fact there is a long list of others. Compared to battery technology it is simply not viable, practically or financially… today or probably ever, as battey technology is progressing in leaps and bounds. At the same time the cost and safety of batteries improves just as quickly. Sorry, it’s a nice idea but Hypoint will go the way of hundreds of other companies who have tried and failed to make this work.

    1. Your comment made us snicker as we’ve been thinking the same thing for a while about fuel cells in general. Aside from getting some traction with fork lifts and some one-off applications, it doesn’t appear to be going mainstream anytime soon. Mr. Musk is on the cusp of unveiling some big battery breakthrough claiming that he will soon produce “more batteries than anyone can possibly imagine.” We continue to cover fuel cells because of reader interest, but we’re not bullish on them. Maybe it’s time to do another more holistic article on fuel cells in general which probably won’t unearth too many surprises. Maybe we’ll start with the “Could Plug Power Be a Millionaire-Maker Stock?” article published a few days ago by Motley Fool.

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