The local startup is planning to retrofit hydrogen power into aircraft aiming to get commercial flights powered by renewable energy in four years.
Hawthorne-based Universal Hydrogen announced Thursday it raised $20.5 million in Series A financing round with a syndicate involving Airbus Ventures, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures, and led by Palo Alto-based venture fund Playground Global.
Founded in 2020, Universal Hydrogen is seeking to eliminate carbon emissions during flight using liquid hydrogen, —produced using renewable power — to feed fuel cells.
"The issue is that the aviation sector is one of the last to decarbonize, but the solution exists," Universal Hydrogen co-founder and CEO Paul Eremenko said in an interview.
The company is developing hydrogen fuel cell retrofit kits for existing regional commercial aircraft with between 40 and 60 seats. Universal Hydrogen has a goal of having the first commercial flight with a hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2025, with initial running costs it says would be equivalent to a conventionally-powered plane and eventually decrease.
Aircraft account for 10% of U.S. transportation emissions and 3% of the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.
But as passenger air travel is expected to grow over the next decade or two, and other sectors — including the automotive sector — are making aggressive moves to reduce carbon emissions, it will become even more important for the aviation sector to decarbonize, Eremenko said.
"We want to be the catalyst for that shift," he said.
Airbus has said hydrogen is increasingly considered one of the "most promising zero-emission technologies for future aircraft." Last year, it released hydrogen aircraft concepts that could enter service by 2035.
Universal Hydrogen says the Series A funding will allow it to continue developing the retrofit kits, as well as build a fuel distribution network that uses existing freight services and avoids significant renovations to pipelines and other current fueling networks. Earlier this year, it received an investment from Trucks Venture Capital to scale its Los Angeles-area engineering operations to build liquid hydrogen modules and work on powertrain development.
Ideally, Eremenko wants airlines like Boeing and Airbus to equip their airplanes, like the 737 MAX, with hydrogen fuel technology for aircraft that will go into service in the 2030s.
Eremenko used the analogy of Nespresso to explain the business model. Nespresso created the coffee capsule technology, but needed to build the first coffee maker to demonstrate how the capsules work. Now, other companies have built coffee makers that use the capsules.
"In the long run, we want other people to build coffee makers that work with our capsules," he said. "We don't want to be in the coffee maker business, we want to be in the capsule business."
Universal Hydrogen's funding announcement came the same day President Joe Biden committed the United States to at least halving the country's greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. In a separate move, the Biden administration said it would allow California and other states to create their own emissions standards and zero emissions mandates, reversing a 2019 rule by the Trump administration that blocked such measures. California and 23 other groups later sued that administration.
While Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's focus this year has been on plug-in electric vehicles and the charging stations they require, hydrogen is having a moment in California, with several companies championing the technology, especially for commercial purposes.
Toyota has operated hydrogen-powered Class 8 semi-trailer trucks at the Port of Los Angeles since 2017. On Thursday, TravelCenters of America said it would install hydrogen stations through a new eTA subsidiary, with a partnership including heavy-duty truck startup Nikola and a $4 million grant from the California Energy Commission.
SpaceX clinched a $159.7 million contract from the Space Force to launch two missions into orbit by 2023.
The new contract was from the Department of Defense's Space Force, as part of their project dubbed "National Security Space Launch Phase 2." It also granted $224.3 million for United Launch Alliance, a Colorado-based joint venture between Boeing's Defense, Space & Security division and Lockheed Martin Space, created in 2006.
The Pentagon said in their announcement this week SpaceX's work will be performed in Hawthorne, as well as nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to dot.LA's request for comment on the new contracts.
The contracts' contents are largely confidential, so it's unclear exactly what payloads SpaceX and the ULA will be sending into space. It has something to do with the Department of Defense's Warfighter Council, a group that meets twice yearly to evaluate and chart the fledgling Space Development Agency's work to build out the country's military and defense presence in space.
The council was recently created to oversee the U.S.' ongoing work in building out a "national defense space architecture," that includes hundreds of satellites that "gather targeting and tracking information and instantly transmit it to warfighters and weapons systems."
"We are making it possible for our National Security Space team to accomplish our mission of providing on-orbit space capability to the warfighter," U.S. Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise director Robert Bongiovi said in a statement Tuesday. The Space and Missile Systems Center is headquartered not far from SpaceX, at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo.
"We are very pleased with the flexibility offered by our Phase 2 providers to make the best launch choices and adjustments as we proceed," Bongiovi added, speaking about SpaceX and ULA.
Last year, Bongiovi said his goal with the SMC was to embrace private industry and use it to advance the country's launch capabilities. In particular, he said the aim is to "demonstrate rapid, responsive and resilient tactical space launch."
United Launch Services lifts the government to the cosmos using several spacecraft; the Delta IV Heavy, Atlas V and Vulcan Centaur – which is also being tapped for the two new launch contracts.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 spacecraft will take two payloads into space. On one of those launches, USSF-87, SpaceX will also provide mission integration services. On the other mission, it will leave that work to the National Reconnaissance Office, which backed the contract.
United Launch Services' missions are expected to launch in the third fiscal quarter of 2023, while SpaceX's will take place in the fourth quarter.This is the second Space Force contract for both SpaceX and ULA. In August 2020, the U.S. Dept. of Defense awarded the first three missions of its Phase 2 program. At the time, SpaceX received $316 million for one mission, while ULA got $337 million to launch two.
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