• Donald V. Watkins

Is Hydrogen-Powered Flight the Future of Commercial Aviation?

Updated: 4 days ago

By: Donald V. Watkins

October 3, 2021


In 2007, I formed a start-up company with Oregon-based aerospace and satellite engineer Bill Snell to develop hydrogen-powered large body, cargo jets. At the time, I was chief executive officer of Birmingham, Alabama-based Masada Resource Group, LLC, an established waste-to-energy technology provider.


Earlier that year, Masada paid Auburn University's Center for Bioengineering $500,000 to help the company develop clean-burning fuels for cars, trucks, and jets. Masada had already developed a patented process for converting ordinary household garbage into fuel-grade ethanol. Working with Auburn University, Masada developed a patented process for converting paper mill sludge into ethanol, as well. We also developed a process for adapting ethanol for use in jet engines.


In Alabama, Auburn University is mostly known for its "War Eagle" football program. Around the world, Auburn is known for its excellence in engineering. In the pioneering world of new and commercially viable clean-burning biofuels and other alternative forms of energy, Auburn University has no peer. Its reputation for excellence in this area exceeds that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston), Georgia Tech (Atlanta), Delft University of Technology (Netherlands), and Oxford University. Auburn is the clear leader in this clean energy, climate-friendly space.


Masada's innovative work and breakthrough alternative energy technologies with Auburn University was 15 years ahead of its time. The rest of the energy producing world was still focused on the production of hydrocarbon fuels during this period.


Green Horizons Aviation's Development of Hydrogen-Powered Flight


After Masada formed an aviation fuels division in 2007, the company partnered with Bill Snell in a company named Green Horizons Aviation, LLC. Green Horizons was headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama. Bill and I turned our attention to developing hydrogen-powered jumbo jets that could be flown by computers just like military drones. Our work with Delford Smith, the late founder and CEO of Oregon-based Evergreen International Aviation, inspired the project.


Green Horizons developed a successful hydrogen-powered jet engine, followed by a downsized prototype of the hydrogen-powered jumbo jet. Bill and his son Daniel videotaped the small prototype's maiden flight in Oregon.


Before we could scale up to a larger concept version of the hydrogen-powered aircraft, the Great Recession of 2008 crashed the global economy. To survive the crash, Masada spun off the Green Horizons project to Bill Snell, who then financed it from his personal resources.


Through a series of austerity measures and loans from my family members and friends, Masada was one of the handful of global alternative energy companies that survived the economic crash of 2008. More than 125 of Masada's worldwide competitors were forced out of business or into bankruptcy.


By 2011, Masada had recovered from the economic crash of 2008 and went on to become a recognized and respected global leader in the alternative fuels technology industry. In Alabama, then-Governor Robert Bentley awarded Masada the state's 2015 Trade Excellence Award in recognition of Masada's industry leading position in exporting alternative fuels technology to the world.


The Future in Aviation Fuels Finally Catches Up to Green Horizons Aviation


Fast-forward to October 2021. National Geographic magazine featured an article on hydrogen-powered flight. In "Greener Skies Ahead," the magazine published a concept "Flying V" commercial jetliner that will be powered by hydrogen fuel. [Click here to view the "Flying-V"]. While the aircraft design is somewhat different from the one Bill Snell and I developed in 2007 and 2008, the hydrogen-powered flight concept is the same. [Click here to see the PowerPoint presentation on Green Horizons' hydrogen-powered jumbo jet].


The major difference between the two projects is the fact that Bill Snell and I are 15 years further down the road to developing commercial flight than the engineers from Delft University of Technology who have designed the "Flying V" prototype for a long-haul hydrogen-powered aircraft. Also, Bill Snell and I focused on cargo aircraft because we wanted to use computers as pilots, instead of human pilots. We knew that the Federal Aviation Administration would pressure us to use human pilots for passenger jets because passengers feel safer seeing human pilots in the cockpit of airplanes.


Hydrogen is available everywhere on the planet. It can be produced and stored anywhere on the planet. It is clean burning. Bill Snell and I even designed energy efficient and commercially viable hydrogen production facilities, both permanent and portable.


Masada and Green Horizons were able to identify and overcome every major challenge along the road to commercialization of their alternative fuels for cars, trucks, and jets, except for Alabama's "Good Ol' Boy" homegrown racism. Looking back, it was a major mistake to make Birmingham, Alabama the international headquarters for privately-owned alternative energy technology companies headed by a strong, independent African-American.


Alabama's Homegrown Racial Bigotry Stalled Our Progress


All of Masada's technological advancements and trade excellence recognition was too much for one homegrown bigot named Lloyd Peeples, who worked as the "First Assistant U.S. Attorney" in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Alabama. The political appointee for U.S. Attorney in the Northern District -- Jay Town -- never moved from Huntsville to Birmingham, where the main U.S. Attorney's office is located, to perform the job on a full-time basis. Instead, Town allowed Peeples to run the show.


Lloyd Peeples and his deceased father have a long and documented history of racial bigotry. In Alabama, this is often a coveted credential, as opposed to a barrier to employment as a federal prosecutor.


Prior to becoming the top assistant U.S. Attorney, Lloyd Peeples ran a "Your Pie" franchise pizza restaurant in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood, Alabama for less than a year. Due to poor management and a tanking financial performance, Peeples' pizza restaurant failed and eventually closed. Prior to running his pizza restaurant, Peeples tried his hand at running Container Service Corporation, which was his father's corrugated box business. Lacking his father's business acumen to run this company successfully, Lloyd Peeples sold this company to New-Indy in 2016.


Despite his failures at running an established business and a single small pizza restaurant, Peeples positioned himself to lead a Birmingham-based federal grand jury in its review of my international energy technology business’s transactions from 2007 to 2013. Peeples reviewed the same business transactions and evidence that highly-qualified and seasoned New Jersey federal prosecutors reviewed in detail in 2015 and 2016. The New Jersey prosecutors, who specialized in major economic crimes, concluded that I complied with all federal laws in connection with my business transactions and practices. This clearance did not deter Peeples from engaging in his own racially-motivated prosecution of my son and me.


Working within a Birmingham federal courthouse that is a longtime sanctuary for homegrown bigots and a citadel for the unfair administration of justice for people of color, Lloyd Peeples persuaded an overwhelmingly white federal grand jury and trial jury that my business conduct was rife with "fraud." To do so, Peeples had to "twist" and distort the same evidence that the New Jersey prosecutors used to clear me.


For example, Peeples characterized loan repayments to family members and friends who provided much needed cash injections to help my alternative energy businesses survive the Great Recession of 2008 as "fraud," even though the longstanding business governance agreements clearly authorized such loan repayments. He also characterized payments on a private jet that was used exclusively for Masada's business purposes as "fraud," even though the aircraft was titled in my personal name and financed on my personal credit. Peeples suppressed evidence that I performed as Masada's CEO on a full-time basis for twelve years, without ever taking the generous salary that was authorized under the corporate governance agreement and that was enjoyed by my predecessor. Finally, Peeples convinced jurors to ignore the undisputed fact that the "victims" in the "fraud" case he manufactured against me were actually accredited investors who were represented by Wall Street investment firms and lawyers when they purchased their properly documented economic interests in my companies.


It worked. Lloyd Peeples' homegrown bigotry trumped a documented track-record of success in the world of international business for an African-American entrepreneur. In the end, a failed pizza parlor operator, who is white, had more credibility than a highly successful global alternative energy entrepreneur, who is black.


Epilogue


While Lloyd Peeples' homegrown bigotry cost Masada valuable time on the technology development schedule, it has not defeated us. The technical knowledge acquired by Masada and Green Horizons in developing hydrogen-powered flight and other alternative forms of clean-burning fuels can never be taken from me by Lloyd Peeples or any other bigot. I will continue to develop and deploy this technology on a commercial basis as soon as the yoke of Peeples' Alabama-style racism has been removed from my life, which I expect will happen in the next few months.


The sustained competitive advantage Bill Snell and I achieved in the hydrogen-powered flight technology development space remains in our favor for one reason -- Masada mastered the ability to export and commercialize emerging alternative energy technologies for cars, trucks, and jets in 47 of the 208 recognized international markets. This competitive advantage is enhanced by the fact that another technology team of mine solved the Navier-Stokes Equation in 2020, thereby paving the way for my company to develop and license stealth technology for military submarines.


Finally, I am extremely proud to be one of the few African-Americans on the planet who is working in the international marketplace on paradigm-shifting alternative energy technologies. It is a truly multi-racial and multicultural workspace. It is also free of the gravitational pull of racism from homegrown Alabama bigots like Lloyd Peeples.



IMAGE: Green Horizon's hydrogen-powered concept aircraft.

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