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Hydrogen-fueled plane wins FAA flight clearance

Universal Hydrogen says its hydrogen-fueled test aircraft has won a key certification from regulators and has completed its first taxi tests at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Wash.

Those two developments bring the California-based company closer to the first flight of its modified De Havilland Dash 8-300 aircraft, nicknamed “Lightning McClean.” The plane’s right engine has been replaced with a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain, featuring an electric motor built by Everett, Wash.-based MagniX.

Seattle-based AeroTEC is handling the engineering work for the conversion, while New York-based Plug Power is providing the fuel cells. The Pratt & Whitney engine on the left side of the plane has been kept intact as a backup for flight tests.

Lightning McClean won a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category from the Federal Aviation Administration — which is a prerequisite for flight testing. Universal Hydrogen hasn’t provided a development timeline, but the first flight could come within the next few months if ground testing goes well.

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First Mode goes all in on clean energy for heavy industry

Seattle-based First Mode and Anglo American have closed a complicated $1.5 billion transaction that will remake First Mode as a clean-energy company for heavy industry — and shift its headquarters to London.

Anglo American, a global mining company, is now First Mode’s majority shareholder. The change of status was reflected in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which reported a $1.184 billion equity offering sold to Anglo American. That’s in addition to a $200 million cash injection that Anglo American is providing, First Mode spokeswoman Colleen Rubart told me in an email.

Rubart said the balance of the $1.5 billion comes in the form of contributions of intellectual property, contracts, facilities and other assets from both of the parties involved in the deal. The deal closed on Jan. 5, she said.

The business combination, which was announced last year, blends First Mode’s engineering operation with Anglo American’s nuGen effort to develop a zero-emission system for hauling ore. First Mode created the hydrogen-fueled hybrid powerplant for Anglo American’s nuGen mining truck, which made its debut in South Africa last year as the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

Going forward, First Mode will supply nuGen systems to Anglo American. The project will include the retrofit of about 400 ultra-class haul trucks with First Mode’s powerplant, plus the provision of infrastructure for hydrogen production, refueling and battery recharging.

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Hydrogen-powered airplane revs up for flight tests

Is hydrogen the green aviation fuel of the future? An industry team led by California-based Universal Hydrogen is testing out that proposition amid the scrublands of central Washington state.

Universal Hydrogen is readying its converted De Havilland Dash 8-300 turboprop plane for initial flight tests later this year at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Wash., with an assist from Washington state partners including Seattle-based AeroTEC and Everett-based MagniX.

Last week, Universal Hydrogen announced that it spun up the propeller on the plane’s MagniX-built electric motor powered completely by hydrogen fuel for the first time. This week, “Lightning McClean” is set to start ground testing in earnest.

“We’ll run the powertrain on the ground with the aircraft static … up to maximum power,” Mark Cousin, Universal Hydrogen’s chief technology officer, told me. “Once we’re happy with the behavior of the system, we will then move into taxi testing and the buildup to flight.”

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First Mode’s zero-emission ambitions get a $200M boost

Seattle-based First Mode and the Anglo American mining company have signed a binding agreement to combine First Mode with Anglo American’s nuGen effort to develop a zero-emission system for hauling ore. The transaction, which is expected to close next month, values the newly combined business at around $1.5 billion and includes a $200 million equity injection from Anglo American.

The outlines of the business combination plan were first announced in June. At that time, Anglo American said the terms of the agreement were non-binding, and the financial details weren’t released.

First Mode is an engineering company that initially focused on providing expertise for space projects such as NASA’s Perseverance rover mission and the Psyche mission to a metal-rich asteroid. But in recent years, it’s devoted increasing attention to carbon-reduction technologies for heavy industry.

The company provided the hydrogen-fueled hybrid power plant for Anglo American’s nuGen mining truck, which made its debut in South Africa this year as the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

“First Mode was founded in 2018 with the goal of building the barely possible,” Chris Voorhees, First Mode’s president and CEO, said today in a news release. “We have done just that, and our mission is now to rapidly decarbonize heavy industry by dramatically reducing our customers’ greenhouse gas emissions. I can’t imagine a team better suited to this urgent challenge.”

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First Mode sets up test site for zero-emission trucks

First Mode is establishing a proving grounds between Seattle and Portland to test and optimize giant zero-emission hauling trucks and the hydrogen-based infrastructure they’ll depend on.

The Seattle-based engineering venture says its leased facility at the TransAlta Centralia Mine, 85 miles south of Seattle, will include 7,500 square feet of office space and 20,000 square feet of outdoor yard space. “We plan to expand our footprint and activities in the future,” First Mode said in an emailed statement.

First Mode’s first job in Centralia will be to bring in a fleet of Komatsu 930E-4 ultra-class haul trucks and retrofit them with hybrid battery and hydrogen fuel cell power plants. Such conversions follow the model set in May, when the Anglo American mining company successfully deployed a proof-of-concept hybrid haul truck at its Mogalakwena mine in South Africa. First Mode developed the hybrid power plant for that truck, the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

“The First Mode Proving Grounds in Centralia is a critical next step in our mission to help heavy industry eliminate diesel and transition to clean energy,” First Mode CEO Chris Voorhees said today in a news release. “The site will support both the optimization of ultra-class haul trucks and the full infrastructure associated with diesel-free mobility and the production and distribution of clean energy.”

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MagniX adds hydrogen to its carbon-free aviation menu

MagniX has been working on electric propulsion systems for years, but now the Everett, Wash.-based venture is adding hydrogen fuel cells to its power repertoire for carbon-free flight.

The expansion plan follows up on MagniX’s partnership with Universal Hydrogen, announced two years ago, and on last month’s initial flight test of an all-electric Eviation airplane equipped with MagniX’s 650-kilowatt motors.

Last year, MagniX and Universal Hydrogen said they’d work with Plug Power and AeroTEC to create a Hydrogen Aviation Test and Service Center at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Wash., where the Eviation flight test took place.

Today MagniX said it would start developing hydrogen fuel cells to complement its battery electric and hybrid electric propulsion systems.

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First Mode enters second stage of clean energy quest

First Mode, a Seattle-based engineering company, says it’s agreed to a business combination with the zero-emission truck development effort led by the Anglo American mining company.

The deal follows up on First Mode’s work with Anglo American on its nuGen Zero Emissions Haulage Solution, which uses a hybrid hydrogen-battery powertrain on ore-hauling trucks. First Mode designed and built the powerplant in partnership with several other companies.

In May, Anglo American unveiled the first converted nuGen monster truck at its platinum mine in Mogalakwena, South Africa. The newly combined business, operating under the First Mode name, would convert Anglo American’s fleet of 400 trucks to the nuGen system. It would also provide associated site infrastructure for battery charging as well as hydrogen production and refueling. First Mode says converting 400 ultra-class haul trucks to zero-emission systems is equivalent to taking 280,000 carbon-emitting cars off the road.

“We started First Mode to solve meaningful and difficult problems,” Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode, said in a news release. “Climate change and energy security are the paramount challenges of our time, and I am so proud this will be First Mode’s focus as we enter this next phase of growth. Now is the right time, and this is the right team, to build the barely possible for this extraordinary set of problems.”

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Mammoth zero-emission mining truck makes its debut

After years of development, the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle was unveiled today at a South African platinum mine, with a hydrogen-fueled hybrid powerplant designed and built by Seattle-based First Mode.

Anglo American’s three-story-tall, 200-ton nuGen hybrid mining truck received a grand sendoff from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Mogalakwena open-pit platinum mine. “It is a smart step for Anglo American, but a giant leap for South Africa’s hydrogen economy as we move into the future,” Ramaphosa said. “The hydrogen economy is beckoning us as a country and as an industry.”

Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode, said zero-emission industrial power will play a key role in addressing the global climate crisis. Large trucks currently account for 70% to 80% of diesel fuel consumption at Anglo American’s mines, but one nuGen truck is expected to keep the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions from 700 cars out of the atmosphere.

“At First Mode, we know we are at a ‘fire-everything’ moment,” Voorhees said in a news release. “The urgency in front of us requires that we deploy every tool and every technology to battle climate change. I’m so proud of the team and our partnership with Anglo American, focused on decarbonization at the source to effect the meaningful, necessary change we all seek.”

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Bill Gates gives a fresh boost to clean energy

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is putting his money as well as his mouth behind the push for new energy technologies.

First, about the money: Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures is doubling down on its investment in ZeroAvia, a startup that’s working on a hybrid hydrogen-electric powertrain for aircraft capable of flying more than 50 passengers.

Back in December, Breakthrough Energy Ventures led a Series A funding round that raised $21.4 million for the U.S.-British company, with Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund joining in the round. This week, ZeroAvia said Gates’ energy innovation fund is participating in a follow-up investment round amounting to another $24.3 million.

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How to fold origami into a rocket ship’s tanks

Build a better fuel tank, and the space industry will beat a path to your door. At least that’s what Washington State University researchers are hoping after they harnessed the ancient art of origami to develop a foldable fuel bladder that stands up to cryogenic temperatures.

Graduate student Kjell Westra, engineering professor Jake Leachman and their colleagues at WSU’s Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research Laboratory, or HYPER Lab, describe their design in the journal Cryogenics. Their research addresses a longstanding challenge in rocket science: How can you store and pump super-chilled propellants like liquid hydrogen more efficiently?

“Folks have been trying to make bags for rocket fuel for a long time,” Leachman said today in a news release. “We currently don’t do large, long-duration trips because we can’t store fuel long enough in space.”