The future of hydrogen in green cargo: An interview with Martina Lofquvist of Destinus

Destinus is in the business of ultra-high-speed, green air transportation using hydrogen and new engine technology. The hyperplane they are building combines the technological advancements of a rocket with the simple physics of a glider to create a vehicle that meets the demands of a hyper connected world for cargo. 
The future of hydrogen in green cargo: An interview with Martina Lofquvist of Destinus
Courtesy of Destinus.

The company’s second prototype, Eiger, conducted its maiden flight on April 13th, 2022, at an airport near Munich, but one of the most challenging tasks for a versatile hydrogen-powered hypersonic aircraft is the aeroshape and flight dynamics.

REM talked to Martina Lofqvist, Senior Business Development Manager at Destinus, to find out more.

Tell me about yourself and the company

The company was founded last year with the idea to deliver cargo and passengers anywhere on Earth in the fastest way possible. This is still our overall goal, but how we will go about it has slightly changed over the course of the year as we’ve dived into the R&D activities and discovered what is possible and not. I’ve been with the company since the start and moved to our headquarters in Switzerland for the role of Senior Business Development Manager. I knew the founder, Mikhail Kokorich, from a previous venture in Silicon Valley – Momentus. We’ve been working together for some years now.

When I joined, in June last year, we were 6 people on the team and there are now over 80 people in the company, consisting primarily of highly qualified engineers from over 20 nationalities. Besides the Swiss office, we also have offices in Munich, Toulouse, and Madrid. We are expanding the teams in all locations. The reason why we picked so many places for our offices is because we want to show ourselves as a truly European company and, because what we are doing is extremely challenging, more easily work with experts and partners across Europe. Therefore, our propulsion team is based in Germany, our hydrogen infrastructure team is based in France, our mission design team is based in Spain, and our ground testing and GNC teams are based in Switzerland, to name a few.

We plan to build vehicles that fly at hypersonic speed, which is extremely fast – we’re talking 5+ Mach, that is more than five times above the speed of sound. They will be fuelled by hydrogen, green liquid hydrogen in particular, and will be autonomous. So, these are the three main areas where we are developing new technologies. One of the core technologies is the engine; we’re developing both airbreathing engines and rocket engines. We are currently in the design phase of these and have more or less finalised the design of the first air-breathing rocket engine prototype that is going into testing and manufacturing towards the end of this year. We are currently setting up our first ground test site in Switzerland where we will have both gaseous and liquid hydrogen capabilities. Next year, we plan to fly it at supersonic speed. That’s going to be a world first, flying a hydrogen engine above the speed of sound, and that will be a huge milestone for our company.

So far, we have built two flying prototypes. The first one is called Jungfrau and it is about the size of a car. It flew in November last year and it was designed, built and tested in just four months. The second one, Eiger, is about the size of a bus and it flew in April this year, also with a very fast development time. We’re currently continuing the flight campaigns of both prototypes, adding new features to them, upgrading the sensors, and performing more in depth analysis to develop the tools necessary for the future vehicles. A lot of our focus on the vehicle side right now is on building up the capabilities within the teams so that we can quickly produce new prototypes and analyse different aeroshapes in preparation for our future hyperplane.

In terms of funding, we closed our Seed Round in February this year of 27 million Swiss Francs. We’re continuing to raise additional funds over the next few months before announcing our Series A. We have significant support from the private investment side, but we’re also working on getting further support from public investments and are working with institutions and agencies across Europe and beyond.

How long have these technologies been available and how long have you been developing this particular project? (06.37)

Although the company was founded just last year, we’re not starting from scratch. Many of the technologies that we are working on, such as hypersonic airplanes, have been studied for years by institutions globally. These projects just haven’t left the conceptual phase, and that is where Destinus comes in. Many of the technologies that we are developing in-house, such as the engines, have also been around for some time. However, we’re improving them by optimising for speed and reusability, and fuelling them with liquid hydrogen. As far as we know, we will be the world’s first to fly a horizontal vehicle above the speed of sound powered by hydrogen.

Within the aviation industry there hasn’t been a lot of changes since the 1950s or so. We are still using similar engines and intercontinental flights still take an uncomfortable amount of time. So, it’s time for a change. Therefore, we are both working on new engines and new airframes in order to fly fast and with hydrogen. The hydrogen tanks have quite a big volume, so in order to fit them into the airframe, we’ve had to design a new shape.

The main concern with aviation particularly is greenhouse gas emissions, so will these technologies be totally ‘clean and green’ so to speak?

There won’t be any operational carbon dioxide emissions when you use hydrogen as fuel. And we specifically plan to use green hydrogen, that is produced from renewable energy sources, to lower the emissions during production. However, most of the hydrogen today is produced from natural gas, which releases carbon emissions. Therefore, the development of green hydrogen and renewable energy production plants needs to expand, which requires more investments and regulatory support. This would not only make the fuel more accessible, but it would also bring down the price of green hydrogen. We’re also considering other emissions, besides carbon dioxide, that commercial airplanes also release today. And we will work actively on reducing any other types of emissions too.

Aha, yes I’ve been writing quite a bit about that, so presumably you’ll be running water through an electrolyser running on renewable energy and all that kind of stuff?

Yes, so we’re looking at being a consumer of green hydrogen and avoid getting too involved in producing it ourselves – some hydrogen aviation companies are also involved on the production side. Instead, we are actively looking for partners and we’re speaking with the main players in Europe – Air Liquide, Linde, Repsol, BP, Engie, Iberdrola and so on who are planning on producing green hydrogen, or are already doing so today. The challenge is to get the price down, and the other challenge is to make sure that there is enough renewable energy to meet our future needs and the growing demands globally. So, we’re probably going to use any kind of hydrogen that we can get hold of when we start flying next year, just because of the challenges of getting the green hydrogen and in liquid format today. We’re actively communicating our needs with these companies and that we will require green hydrogen in the future, when we’ll need hundreds or thousands of tonnes of liquid hydrogen per year. So, we are showing them a strong use case for green hydrogen production that will help them push the regulators. The green hydrogen market is expanding massively already, so it looks promising. I was in Madrid recently for a conference, “Connecting Green Hydrogen in Europe” and saw that there is already a lot of green hydrogen projects. However, the economics of it still need to make sense. Although if you look at the price of jet fuel, this is becoming a lot more expensive with increasing taxes for its carbon emissions, so we do believe that hydrogen aircraft will eventually match the cost of today’s solution.

Another problem is that hydrogen is being mooted across a whole range of sectors now – trains, buses, cars, so you’re going to have a lot of competition. Surely this relies on there being an explosion of renewable energy plants in order to drive the electrolysers, so are you seeing any evidence of that starting to happen? Of renewables being ‘ramped up’ so to speak?

From what I’ve noticed, yes, there are already some electrolyser facilities that can produce green hydrogen today and contracts are being signed to set up new electrolysers as well. Green hydrogen is a mega-trend right now and a lot of companies and people are talking about it, it’s on the political agenda. I do believe it’s going to ramp up considering the goal in Europe to be climate-neutral by 2050. These policies certainly help companies to invest in renewable energy projects. But it will be a challenge, and it needs to happen globally, because we’re going to fly to different locations across the globe. So, we need to keep in mind where these transitions are taking place. For example, the Middle East will be a great location for us to fly to because they have a lot of sunlight there, so solar energy should be accessible. Although today there are no electrolysers in place to produce green hydrogen, which is a long development process and a big investment. We need to become very involved in these discussions to make sure it’s being developed in the locations we want to go to.

Timeline wise, we are looking to have our first product ready by 2026. We are aiming to have a commercial, passenger or cargo, Hyperplane ready to operate by the end of this decade. Flights at hypersonic speed is the big goal, that is where we’re heading. That is what will change the world, when you can fly anywhere on Earth within a couple of hours without any carbon emissions released into the atmosphere. That is going to change the whole market, perhaps even create new markets, because if you can get from France to New Zealand within two hours, just imagine how that will change logistics and our lives.

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