Sunderland company strikes deal with hydrogen-powered plane pioneer

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A Sunderland-based hydrogen pump maker has signed a deal to supply kit to ZeroAvia, the US start-up developing a zero-emission hydrogen-electric passenger plane.

Haskel, based close to a growing hub of hydrogen companies in the North East, makes the pumps needed to pressurise hydrogen and get it into fuel tanks.

It is this technology being supplied to ZeroAvia, which recently won the backing of United Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

As well as aviation, hydrogen could be used in lorries whose weight rules out using battery technology, said Stephen Learney of Haskel.

“Once you get to a certain size of vehicle, the weight of the batteries themselves outweigh the value of electrifying the vehicle, so there is a transition point where batteries just aren’t going to do the job,” he said.

Even quick battery charging will probably not be fast enough for the haulage industry, Mr Learney said, while a hydrogen truck can be refuelled in about a minute.

The company’s biggest order this year was from New Zealand, where it will supply hydrogen refuelling stations in a government-backed deal.

Because lorries stick to fairly predictable routes, the UK may only need about 24 hydrogen refueling stations to cover the motorway network.

Large truck makers including Mercedes owner Daimler, Volvo and Iveco agreed earlier this year to co-operate in planning a move to fuelling their vehicles with hydrogen. Hyundai is planning a lorry with a 500-mile range that could be in production by 2023.

Much further ahead in development are hydrogen buses, as cities including Aberdeen and Birmingham already run the vehicles.

To make the fuel available for the nation’s bus fleets will probably mean a further 51 stations, said Mr Learney.

“The Government needs to make a clear statement about transport,” he said. “If you’re looking to really decarbonise, you need to do something about transport.”

The broader hydrogen industry is moving more quickly than even three years ago, where it might take two years to secure an order, down to about six months as government schemes back new decarbonisation programmes, including ZeroAvia’s.

As a green replacement fuel, the technology is limited by the source of energy needed to produce hydrogen, which can be burned to produce nothing but water. To be zero-carbon, it needs to be made using renewable electricity in a process which splits water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen.

There also need to be developments around chilling the gas to manage it under pressure, as current coolants often contain “nasty chemicals”, Mr Learney added.

The North East has attracted much green investment in the last year, with BP planning a huge zero-carbon green hydrogen plant in Teesside. Its 60 megawatt green hydrogen plan will produce the gas from electrolysis from 2025.

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