Universal Hydrogen Folds

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Universal Hydrogen, which was trying to develop workable systems to power aircraft with hydrogen, has folded after burning through about $100 million in investor capital. The Seattle Times is reporting the company sent a memo to shareholders on Thursday saying there was no way forward for the startup. “We were unable to secure sufficient equity or debt financing to continue operations and similarly were unable to secure an actionable offer for a sale of the business or similar strategic exit transaction,” the Times quoted the memo from CEO Mark Cousin.

The company did have some breakthroughs. It configured a Dash-8 so that one engine ran on hydrogen and the other ran on Jet A, and it flew once in 2023 with considerable fanfare. Getting airborne was just one challenge, however. Hydrogen, while environmentally benign when burning, is difficult to handle and store and needs large amounts of electricity to produce. Universal was working on modular fuel storage cells and sourcing hydrogen from green sources. Cousin said he hopes the strides made by Universal will inform future efforts. “We are deeply proud of the work the team has done to create the first commercially viable hydrogen aviation ecosystem,” Cousins wrote. “It is our sincere hope that these efforts will live on as part of a future entity.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

68 COMMENTS

  1. This company should be the poster child for all that is wrong with the notion that ‘alternative’ methods of powering serious airplanes is possible. They burned through $100M of investor of money and have nothing to show for it! As bad as that is, the investors themselves ought to be checked by a psychiatrist. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I swear you could sell these people anything if you just call it ‘green.’

    Worse yet, they’re only now realizing that hydrogen is “diifficult to handle and store and needs large amounts of electricity to produce.” Who the hell was advising these people? It sure wasn’t anyone with a physics degree! Assume for a second that they were successful … would the planet be any better off generating huge amounts of hydrogen from an energy hog process located somewhere else? Seems to me the EV world is finding out the same thing, too. They put the cart in front of the horse as well.

    I have zero empathy OR sympathy for anyone involved with the absolutely nutty idea here. Hang on … for other than specialty ops, the notion of people moving electric flying contraptions won’t be far behind. One thing is likely for sure … this CEO should be held SERIOUSLY culpable for losing — NO! Wasting — all that money. He should spend some time making small rocks out of big ones. This whole thing reminds me of the NASA X-47 electric airplane debacle which raises my blood pressure off the scale.

    Shame on all of these people!

    • Are proposing new regulations or an entirely new regulatory agency to determine which investments private investors should and shouldn’t be allowed to invest their capital in?

    • I’ve often said that if I had their money, I’d burn mine. Now I have a better concept of what that means. I’m reminded of a recent House oversight meeting targeting secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg. In 2021, seven billion dollars were allocated to build a national network of electric car charging stations. The result after 3 years is that somewhere in the country, 7 more cars can simultaneously be charging. Mr Buttigieg said that the permitting and planning takes time but the network will be functioning by 2030.

    • I am not too surprised that Universal Hydrogen is not going to be commercially successful and I know that hydrogen is difficult to handle and store and is relatively energy inefficient to produce in a clean manner. However, I will predict that we will have battery electric powered short and medium haul aircraft and at least some practical applications for eVTOLs. The reason why some of these will succeed has to do with basic economics (cost per seat mile) and reliability. But it is also likely that a number of these companies will also go bankrupt. It is worth remembering how many aircraft companies that were started in the 1920s and 1930s have gone under. Pioneers sometimes end up with arrows in the back. However, nothing risked, nothing gained.

      Just curious, Larry S, do you have a degree in physics or engineering?

      • Yes + 21 years USAF and 18 years aerospace on a black airplane + Navy flight test at the end. In retirement, I’m now an alchemist; I turn beer into … well … you know … 🙂

  2. Don’t worry too much for “investors” there are tax laws that them and their political friends put into place that makes it all good for this kind of malarkey.

    • One likely investor is us! Wonder how many tax payer “Green investment” dollars were involved.

  3. Guys! Such righteous indignation! I can see you now with frock coats, goatees, and pince nez, lecturing from the pulpit on a Sunday morning!
    What this might be actually is something akin to the Dutch Tulip craze of the 16 or 17 hundreds, where the bubble of investors seemed unstoppable until it stopped.
    There are lots of business ideas that seem great, until they aren’t. It’s not a crime. It’s called taking a risk where some people feel the risk is small, while others feel it’s not worth it.
    To each their own.

  4. “…the first commercially viable hydrogen aviation ecosystem,”
    They were there… “ecosystem”?

    “We were unable to secure sufficient equity or debt financing to continue operations…”
    Just needed more $…

    “Cousin said he hopes the strides made by Universal will inform future efforts.”
    I’ll go along with that part, unless “strides” is the wrong word.

  5. Larry S – I could not have said it better myself. Somehow, my degree in Electrical Engineering from Purdue keeps telling me that these Flash Gordon ideas will never be commercially viable.

    • Thanks. I throttled myself to not say what I was REALLY thinking, twinpilot. You learned in Physics 101 in hour 1 that ‘energy is neither created nor destroyed; it merely changes form.’ Too bad the people who think they’re saving the planet by WASTING energy by either changing its form or by moving it long distances or creating complex machines didn’t learn this. SIGH!

    • Thinking about it some more, you wouldn’t want your grandmother’s 2-cycle engine powered Maytag washing machine any more than you’d want a hydrogen powered twin otter. Each form of energy has its place and that’s why the early electric cars gave way to cars powered by dead dinosaurs and washing machines run on 110VAC. Energy density plays a part. Transporting that energy plays a part. Manufacturing and storing that energy plays a part. The people of “Universal Hydrogen” were SO blinded by the word “green” that they either ignored that OR are ignorant to it? I’ll say it again … SHAME on them!
      And another thing … $100M is 10% of a BILLION BUCKS. This is insanity on steroids … wasted. Think of what $100M could do in other places. Maybe NordicDave (above) has it right … WE paid for some of this nonsense. Maybe the NASA X-47 Program Manager went on to work for Universal Hydrogen?
      ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!

  6. It takes 6 units of energy to isolate, refrigerate (-235C) and compress one unit of hydrogen energy to usable form.
    That math has been known for a long time.
    The Universal Hydrogen fiasco is what happens when politicians and the climate mob peruse the periodic table, and convince stupid money to invest.

    • SHUSH, Tiger. The ‘mob’ is busy saving the planet while simultaneously allowing the world’s poopulation (sp. on purpose) to expand exponentially.

      • The population is really the problem. No one is doing a damn thing about that.

        If fact, some countries are encouraging the population to breed more. It is a Ponzi scheme of sorts.

        • And the same people who invested in Universal Hydrogen probably see those bleeding heart TV commercials begging for money to ‘save the poor starving masses of the world and eagerly support that. Meanwhile, at the ‘poor starving masses of the world’ HQ, the CEO is likely banking or enjoying 90% of it, spending 7% on more TV commercials and sending corn flakes over to wherever 🙁
          I’d like to see a very in depth and strict analysis of Mark Cousin’s personal financial status / situation! SAY … Mr Cousin, why don’t you come on here at AvWeb and ‘splain’ what’s going on better than a terse ‘we be gone’ statement.

          • It is really amazing how the human race is fixated on finding complicated solutions to a very simple problem. I live near Geneva which is the UN center for shipping corn flakes from Mercedes limousines with CC licence plates so they don’t have to pay for parking tickets.

        • You are dead on, Jethro. Population is, and has been, the biggest problem for most of our lives. In spite of losing between 50 and 60 million people in the wars of the twentieth century, the population has climbed to an unsustainable point. The earth and its environment could easily support around 3 billion humans, but not the 8+ billion we have today. To make matters worse, many of those people aspire to have all the consumer goods and other things we enjoy as Americans. Ain’t going to happen. Unfortunately, we don’t have a humane way of getting rid of 5 billion inhabitants. The Black Death of the Middle Ages wiped out about half the population of Europe. The next one, when it arrives, may well do the same worldwide.

          • Mr. Caulkins. That was an inappropriate and racist comment. Think before you push that send button. My wife is Chinese.

        • The other face of population growth is economic growth, which is accepted by virtually all of human society as being the very definition of “progress”, a good we all must strive toward on every level, both individual and collective. It is indeed a Ponzi scheme; one we all support with enthusiasm.

      • Sorry no edit or delete function. I blame cut and paste without proofreading.
        My comment should read:

        ” We are trying to save the environment. Don’t muddle the program with physics or chemistry.”

  7. If you look over the history of technology and innovation, you will see that the graveyard of ideas is full of companies like Universal Hydrogen. How many people tried and failed to produce a heavier than air flying machine before the Wright Brothers finally succeeded? At the time, the general consensus was that heavier than air flight was lunacy and impossible. Yet, a century later, we see how wrong they were. Back then, some of those people worked on their own (like the Wright’s) and some burned tax dollars like Langley. I agree with you, Larry, that private enterprise usually works better than those burning public money. However, the challenges of modern technology advancement are so expensive that a guy working in his basement has little to no chance without some public assistance. I would not feel sorry for the investors in this case. Venture capitalists are not stupid people, nor are they starry eyed dreamers detached from reality. They know that for every successful breakthrough there are at least 3-5 failures that looked good but didn’t make it. They play a numbers game. The reason Universal Hydrogen went under is because the VC’s pulled the plug and declined further investment. It didn’t mean that UH was on a fool’s mission, it just means that they weren’t making enough progress to justify more investment.

    I’m a chemical engineer and I recognize the immense challenge of efficiently producing “green” hydrogen, moving and storing it, and using it to power a flying machine. But I won’t say that it is impossible – either technologically or economically. In the last month, several advancements in hydrogen production have moved the needle in the right direction. Having said all that, there are still huge obstacles standing in the way. It won’t be here any time soon. In answer to your next question, would I, or did I, invest in UH? Oh, Hell no! 😉

    • Well … as I recall, the Hindenburg used hydrogen. How’d that work out for them 87 years ago? Admittedly, they were using it for buoyancy but — still …

      • While hydrogen has a different set of issues to resolve compared with Avgas or Jet A1, it has significant advantages, and the work that companies like Universal Hydrogen have done and others are doing contributes to the scientific/engineering body of knowledge for the future.

      • Being of German descent, the Hindenburg will always hold a “warm” spot in my heart, and somewhere in New Jersey too!

        I am still trying to figure out how I am going to get airborne once our little “green friends” get done outlawing all petroleum products? Like my old Navy boss always said of the do-gooders, “You got to love them, they are trying to do God’s work”.

      • Very true, Larry. However, today there is a thriving group of balloon enthusiasts that use hydrogen for lift due to the high and increasing cost of helium. It is ironic that the Hindenburg was originally designed to use helium, but the US government (who pretty well controlled the helium market back then) refused to sell any to the Nazis, so they went with hydrogen. We have learned a lot since the 1930s about handling hydrogen. Explosion proof wiring, modern plastics for better sealing the envelope, and such things make using it much safer. And, since hydrogen burns with a non-luminous flame, it is actually safer than being exposed to a gasoline or diesel pool fire. Many of the people in the Hindenburg disaster actually survived due to that factor. But I digress…

        Yes, the technological challenges of hydrogen as an aviation fuel are enormous, and it will take a lot of innovation, and money, to bring it to reality. But it will come, even if Universal Hydrogen is not the ones to make it succeed.

  8. I never get tired of using reason, history, physics, and basic economics to be proven right.
    P.T Barnum was once again also proven right.

  9. This is not a problem for me, as long as it is voluntarily funded by private investors and not tax dollars. People have a right to waste their own money however they want. If you are going to get mad, here is one of many legitimate reasons:

    “On March 13, 2024, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $750 million in funding for 52 projects across 24 states to dramatically reduce the cost of clean hydrogen”

    Nothing like smearing projects across congressional districts to highlight a complete waste of money.

    • I prefer to use the term “risk” their money rather than “waste” their money. No advances in technology in the free market have been made without risk.

      • Absolutely true, but risk is a spectrum.

        Aircraft depend on energy, so energy density and specific energy are very important. When people pursue hydrogen which has a terrible energy density or battery electric which has terrible specific energy, they push so far out on the continuum that it’s almost untrue to still call it risk. When the government gets involved and starts spreading money around it is guaranteed to be largely, if not entirely, a waste.

        Starting an aircraft company is fraught with peril. Making that company’s success dependent on some new discovery in the laws of physics is not a good bet.

        • “…hydrogen which has a terrible energy density”

          Low density per volume measure, but the highest density per mass unit of any fuel.

  10. So, “it takes 6 units of energy to isolate, refrigerate (-235C) and compress one unit of hydrogen energy to usable form”. So it’s no wonder that the investors’ 100 million shrinks as the entrepreneurs’ wealth increases 17 million.
    No worries, the investors got a huge share of the virtual signalling, but I fear, that millions are really gone from the pension funds, i.e. from us, as @NordicDave suspected. Many pension companies have invested “responsibly” in ETF climate funds. It’s so easy to be a “good person”.
    Otherwise, I think, the Wright brothers had the basics of physics under control and that’s why their experiments were successful. Electricity and hydrogen fanatics, on the other hand, only understand how to deceive the unintelligent.

  11. there are a lot of investors that love investing in potential business that look dramatic but have no chance of being practical. Hydrogen probably will have a place in our energy future but as many above have said, in a very weight and complexity sensitive application, Aircraft are not that application.

    A good example of the crazier it looks the more investment it gets, is a diesel engine called the “ecomotor” it got huge amounts of crazy investment while a very practical new aircraft engine like the “EPS aircraft diesel” struggled to get good investment. The Eps diesel and several others being developed in the less than 800 hp catagory are weight competitive in flights of 2 hours with reserves and beyond that endurance offer great advantages. but many investors would not invest because it looked pretty normal (although to work well and compete with existing technology) it needed excellent design and lots of small improvements not very obvious.

    one of the ways to get rich is to develop something really strange looking and investors will flock to it. having a lot of$$ is not a guarantee of being smart. especially people who made their money easily are prone to this.

  12. I am so glad that all the expert naysayers concerning this hydrogen-powered flight weren’t around at the beginning of powered flight. There were many failures in the powered flight endeavor. When it was achieved, did it have a practical application? No. Was there infrastructure to support it. No. All of that was to come and powered flight provided my family with a fine living.

    This attempt to achieve hydrogen-powered flight failed. However, others may build on their experiences and may someday find success.

    I have no doubt that all the commenters here are fabulously wealthy through their innate ability to pick winning technologies without fail.

    • What killed electric cars back in the late 19th-early 20th century was cheap, plentiful, and easily extracted petroleum. Batteries were also much heavier and less efficient than now. Oil and gas are less plentiful and easily extracted now than in those days and as petroleum continues to become less plentiful and less easily extracted, other forms of energy will inevitably be developed out of practical and economic necessity. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but who knows?
      Airplanes are clearly a more difficult vehicle for which to solve the power problem than cars, so the problem of powering aircraft without petroleum will not be easily solved. However, sooner or later if we wish to continue flying, especially personal aircraft, the problem will be solved. I have confidence in the ingenuity of humans. The more people we have, the more likely it is someone with come up with practical solutions to all of our problems. Paradoxically the more people we have, the more problems we will have. Heck, maybe some other personal transportation form will come along and airplanes will become obsolete. I wish I had a functional crystal ball!

      • Electric in the early 20th century were also made obsolete by the invention of the electric starter. Electric cars were favored, especially by women, because you could just get in and go. The alternative was to crank the car to get it going. Cranking can be finicky, requires a certain amount of strength, and is especially tricky when it’s cold out. (I own frequently drive a 100+ year old car that must be cranked.)

  13. I’m with you Bill K. I was an R&D engineer at a national lab for 34 years. I worked on a number of research projects that had the goal of advancing science and technology. Often times we failed to do one or the other, but all of them moved the needle to the right. Sometimes we learned more from our failures than we would have from the original goals. As for all of you that think basic physics defines the known universe, I’ll remind you that there was a guy named Einstein that came along and turned Newtonian physics on its head. Some of you may not know that the accuracy of satellite based GPS systems must take into account the effect of time dilation due to their velocity and gravity variation relative to the Earth. Put that into your Newtonian brains and tell me that is impossible.

  14. If the problems of storage (heavy, high pressure cryogenic tanks) and usability in turbine engines (might be a big problem as this company did only ONE TEST FLIGHT) are solved maybe hydrogen produced by nuclear generated electricity might, might one day be added to the fuels powering aircraft.

    In the meantime look at what Rolls Royce is doing with the micro nuclear reactor, not for aircraft power but real green energy. Nuclear is the real green energy and we better start investing in new forms of it.

    • THAT I can agree with and live with, Tom. Problem is … don’t hold your breath. The anti-nuclear folks have nearly killed that notion. Huge nuclear reactors are one thing; smaller systems are another. Just think of how little nuclear material powers a nuclear aircraft carrier for 20 years.

    • “…and usability in turbine engines”

      Hydrogen drove one side via a fuel cell feeding an electric motor – not via a turbine.

  15. Couldn’t agree more with Larry S the first commenter. Just like this man made climate change hoax being pushed down our throats. It has driven people to insanity.

    • I just saw a program entitled, “Climate Equity and Inclusion.” That’s an even bigger scam intended to get the masses fighting with each other while we don’t notice what “they” are up to. That whole thing disgusts me.

  16. Hydrogen is the most prevalent element in the universe. And thunderstorms are the most prolific producers of electricity on Earth. It sure would be nice to tame them for energy purposes. I don’t blame anyone for honestly trying.

  17. The $100M this company burned through could have been spent on something more conventional with a much higher probability of success. Aero-diesel should be much more prevalent in aviation than it is today –> large reductions in fuel consumption, toxic emissions, noise, engine maintenance costs. Few new aero-diesels, though – why?

  18. Actually, I’m sure part of the reason the went under is due to the success of ZeroAvia, a H2 aviation company that is highly successful. They have lots of orders and are making excellent progress. Zeroavia.com.

  19. Airplanes are already hydrogen powered. Petroleum is hydrocarbons, lots of hydrogen and a little carbon which when reacted with oxygen produces water, a little carbon, and a lot of power. Jet fuel is the best hydrogen storage system you can have.

  20. I think we’ve seen in the last few weeks – the emperor has no clothes, in many different ways.

    LyondellBasel suspended their 100 octane fuel effort, EAGLE/PAFI is government is a government program to keep FAA employees funded, hydrogen is not practical or economical (Gee, who’d of think it), and then let’s not forget the $Billions spent on solar electric failures Solundra, et al.

    Larry S, you nailed it. These self righteous, arrogant, smug elitists want to force all types of alternative energy down our throats well before they are ready. It’s apparently very easy to be “green” when you spend OPM, other people’s money.

    The difference between these examples and the Wright Brothers, they proved the science BEFORE they attempted powered flight, not the other way around.

  21. As the monkey said as he peed into the till, “This is going to run into money!”

    QED

  22. You just can’t beat the capability and the BTUs from a lot of dead dinosaurs. This Green New deal, will bankrupt us all. I’m still waiting on my flying car, dilithium crystals, and the flux-capacitor.

  23. Hydrogen is sort of like nuclear fusion; it is the energy source of the future and always will be.

    • Yes, the Sun has been doing it for billions of years and us little stupid earthlings cannot figure it out. We are probably a billionth as smart as we think we are.

      • I don’t believe that using nuclear fusion actually makes the sun intelligent.

        But I agree that hydrogen and nuclear fusion are the fuels of the future, along with solar, wind, tidal and a few things that haven’t been invented yet.

  24. All of you hydrogen skeptics remind me of a saying I believe floated around for many years.

    “If God had wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings.”

    In spite of that, humanity invented manned flight and a huge industry to go with it.

    There is nothing wrong with hydrogen as a fuel and the energy to create it will eventually come from solar, wind, tidal, nuclear and other low-cost sources and the new energy will not contribute to global warming.

    Petroleum has been a great thing for humanity. Without it, our current level of development (including science and engineering) would not have been possible.

    I love my internal combustion vehicles but, in order to assure my progeny the same full life that I have had, I’ll gladly convert them all to hydrogen that has been cracked out of water using clean energy.

    It’s time.

  25. Population has always been the problem. Unfortunately our political, business and religious leaders are wedded to the idea of constant, unlimited growth. They are terrified of a shrinking population. After reading The Population Bomb (which should be required reading) in the 60’s, I made the decision to not produce any biological children. (I now have two lovely adopted daughters). When I consider the carbon footprint two of them would have had by now, I don’t feel at all guilty flying my Cherokee 6.

  26. Why is it never mentioned that the easiest, cheapest thing to crack hydrogen from is methane, and due to the exceptionally excessive costs of cracking from water virtually everyone is cracking hydrogen from methane using a process called SMR (Steam Methane Reforming), .

    The easiest substance to crack hydrogen from is natural gas (methane) through a process called steam methane reforming (SMR). This process requires about 9-12 kWh

  27. Sorry, sent by accident before I could clean it up.

    The byproducts of SMR are carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), which are harmful greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. Not so green as all the hydrogen shucksters would have you believe. Much less green than just burning the methane.

  28. For over 40 years, hydrogen has been safely used in vast quantities as an industrial chemical and as fuel for space exploration. In fact, several million cubic meters of hydrogen are transported and handled every year. However, public perception on hydrogen’s safety is still mixed: only 49.5% of respondents to a recent survey believed that hydrogen is “generally safe.” Throughout the years, this perception has undoubtedly been negatively shaped by incidents like the 1937 Hindenburg disaster.

    However, what is interesting about the survey is that 73.2% of participants responded favorably to the second question about “willingness to use hydrogen-powered modes of transportation.” As hydrogen increasingly becomes a mainstay in the development of new transport solutions like cars and buses, public perceptions on hydrogen are likely to change–which should positively influence hydrogen adoption in aircraft.

  29. Technology innovations and impact on cultural choices are almost impossible to predict; for a rearview mirror example read: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/today-technology-day-horse-lost-its-job-brad-smith/
    My personeal bet for the future: nuclear fusion providing carbon-free unlimited dense energy, a synthetic fuel like ammonia (NH3 less dangerous than H2) for heavy vehicules and airplanes; H2 only for industrial use mostly; batteries for everything else that moves.
    See ya in 40 years for debrief 😉

    • The following five commentators are the most accurate and on-topic:

      1. **Larry S** – His comments offer a critical perspective on the feasibility of hydrogen as an aviation fuel, highlighting practical issues like energy density and the challenges of hydrogen production and storage.

      2. **Samuel H. Drake** – Provides a balanced view, acknowledging the difficulties in handling hydrogen but also predicting future success in electric-powered short and medium-haul aircraft, grounding his arguments in basic economics and reliability.

      3. **John Mc** – Offers historical context and insight into the risks and rewards of technological innovation. He explains the challenges of hydrogen production and storage and emphasizes the importance of venture capital in tech advancements.

      4. **Chris M** – Discusses the broader context of energy transition, mentioning how past technological shifts, like from electric cars to gasoline, were driven by practical considerations and anticipating future energy solutions driven by necessity.

      5. **Bill K** – Defends the value of experimental failure in advancing technology. He compares the hydrogen flight endeavor to the early days of powered flight, stressing the importance of persistence and learning from failures for future success.

      These commentators provide insights based on historical context, economic principles, technological feasibility, and the inherent risks in innovation, making their contributions valuable to the discussion.

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