Universal Hydrogen's Plans to Test the First Hydrogen-Fueled Airliner

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Universal Hydrogen's Plans to Test the First Hydrogen-Fueled Airliner

Facing a future filled with human-caused climate catastrophes, Universal Hydrogen has set its sights on the sky.

Frustrated that the aviation industry was not moving fast enough to cut down on emissions, former Airbus Chief Technology Officer Paul Eremenko teamed up last year with former Georgia Tech engineering professor John Paul Clarke and Jon Gordon, a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer, to launch Universal Hydrogen.

The Hawthorne-based company produces a kit that eliminates carbon emissions from regional aircrafts. It's one of several startups working to reduce commercial travel's emissions. But it has even larger ambitions, seeking to develop a hydrogen fuel distribution network that it hopes will be used in airports around the world.

Universal Hydrogen said it is on track for their first flight test using their hydrogen fuel cell powertrain on a 40-person passenger regional airliner in 2022 at Moses Lake, Washington.

"We want to be in the business of supplying hydrogen to the user, in this case the airlines," said Chief Commercial Officer Rod Williams. "We'll be able to take an aircraft and convert it from the configuration today which uses a turboprop engine powered by Jet A-1 fossil fuel to a configuration which uses a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain and produces no carbon dioxide."

Universal Hydrogen hopes to sell hydrogen fuel capsules and module technology to serve as both the fuel tank within the aircraft and the method of transporting hydrogen from where it's produced to the aircraft. Their hydrogen fuel capsules offer 2X weight savings over conventional tech. "That's important because there's no infrastructure that exists today to transport hydrogen," Williams said.

Hydrogen is generally regarded as a cleaner fuel, since it produces only water when consumed by a fuel cell. There are a variety of ways that hydrogen can be produced, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass and renewable power like solar and wind.

There's a lot of money being invested in hydrogen, including a $52 million fund announced by the Energy Department in July. But not everyone is convinced of hydrogen's benefits; some research suggests it's still too energy-intensive to produce.

That's because much of the hydrogen now produced comes from natural gas facilities, but converting that production to wind and solar could open the gates to a greener aviation industry.

Mark Jacobson, the director of the Atmosphere and Energy program at Stanford University, and one of the authors of a study published in that found that so called "blue hydrogen," a product the natural gas industry has been promoting, produces a larger greenhouse gas footprint than burning natural gas or coal for heat.

To really make hydrogen green, he said the industry will need to convert to wind and solar.

"If the hydrogen is green hydrogen and it's used in a fuel cell in an aircraft, that's actually the best option for long distance [commercial air travel]," Jacobson said.

For smaller and short haul flights, he said electric planes are promising.

Universal Hydrogen announced last week that they secured $62 million to accelerate the first test flight of a hydrogen-powered aircraft that's expected to take off in 2022.

Investors in the round include Mitsubishi HC Capital, Tencent, Stratos, GE Aviation, Waltzing Matilda Aviation, Fourth Realm, Hawktail, Marc Benioff's TIME Ventures, Jeff Wilke and Spencer Rascoff's 75 and Sunny Ventures. (Full disclosure: Rascoff is the founder and executive chairman of dot.LA.)

The circumstances couldn't be more urgent. Air traffic dumped 915 million tons of greenhouse gas-causing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2019. In 2020, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated approximately 612,000 barrels of pollution-belching jet fuel was consumed each day by U.S. commercial passenger flights. And, given the uncertainty surrounding climate change legislation on Capitol Hill, it's unlikely the aviation industry will face much pressure to change how it operates. That's where Universal Hydrogen comes in.

Clean-burning hydrogen has long been an attractive alternative to petroleum in cars. Yet, due to the cost of implementation, it has yet to really catch on in that sector (though there are a few promising instances of adoption: hydrogen fuel cells have been used in cars built by Hyundai and Toyota). Adoption has been slow in aviation as well.

But that may be changing. Airlines and operators including Icelandair, Air Nostrum, Ravn Alaska, and ASL Aviation Holdings (cargo aircraft) have committed to purchasing Universal Hydrogen's conversion kits.

Though the company did not disclose the price of their kits, they expect the cost of their hydrogen will be far less than the jet fuel used today.

"Our goal is to not increase the cost of travel and we expect that by the time we get to 2025, we'll be able to achieve the same cost that an airline has today," Williams said.

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.