Investment Memos
November 24, 2020
Jeffrey Schox

Completing the hydrogen value chain for aviation (Why we invested in Universal Hydrogen)

Producing almost a billion tons of CO2 annually, the aviation industry accounts for 12% of transportation emissions and 2.5% of all human-induced emissions. While electrification could be an initial response to tackle this issue, today’s batteries simply do not have the energy density to electrify transportation’s most weight-sensitive mode. As such, the industry views hydrogen as the answer to its carbon emissions crisis.

Hydrogen is the only viable and scalable solution for decarbonizing aviation, yet it is bottlenecked by a lack of hydrogen distribution infrastructure and a lack of aircraft with hydrogen-electric powertrains. To solve these challenges, Universal Hydrogen (UH2) is building a capex-light, end-to-end solution for hydrogen-fueled aircraft built upon three core innovations:

  1. Storage and Containment: UH2 has designed a light-weight, modular capsule that is two times more weight-efficient than traditional hydrogen containers. These Kevlar wrapped capsules allow hydrogen to be easily transported in shipping containers over existing intermodal freight networks and to be safely stored in aircraft.
  2. Aircraft Retrofits: UH2 has designed a hydrogen-electric powertrain conversion kit built upon mature, off-the-shelf electric motor and fuel cell technologies to easily retrofit regional aircraft. Certification and entry into revenue service for retrofitted aircraft is expected to happen in 2025.
  3. Global Distribution Infrastructure: UH2’s modular hydrogen capsule system enables a capital-light distribution infrastructure build on top of existing intermodal containerized freight networks. This allows UH2 to produce affordable hydrogen with renewable energy and still deliver it wherever airlines need fuel.

UH2’s strategy is analogous to the Nespresso pod model. Although Nespresso initially made and sold its own coffee machines, its real value is in selling coffee pods. Most Nespresso machines today are built by other manufacturers and are designed to be compatible with the pod specifications. Similarly, UH2 is not in the business of building hydrogen-electric powertrain aircraft long-term. It is simply developing retrofit kits to accelerate adoption of its hydrogen capsules and distribution infrastructure. Eventually, UH2 hopes to rely on hydrogen-electric powertrain aircraft built by other aviation OEMs.

UH2 is first targeting the $2.4B regional aviation market. It plans on expanding to the $105B UAM market by 2028 and the $322B single-aisle aviation market by 2032. The company is also considering expanding to other verticals such as trucking, maritime, and rail in the future.

The team's CEO, Paul Eremenko, is a legend of the aviation industry, having been the former CTO of both Airbus and United Technologies and a catalyst in their electrification efforts. CTO John-Paul Clarke is a professor at UT Austin and formerly a professor at Georgia Tech and MIT as well as the VP of Strategic Technologies at United Technologies. COO Jason Chua co-founded and led United Technologies’ skunkworks organization, where he led the hybrid-electric flight demonstrator project. General Counsel and Head of Partnerships Jon Gordon was previously General Counsel at United Technologies, Voom, and Two Sigma. Chief Commercial Officer Rod Williams is an expert in aircraft commercial operations, having held various high-level roles at Bombardier.

Trucks is very excited to support the team and help them solve one of transportation’s most significant carbon emissions crises.

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