This aviation startup is hovering forward with hydrogen-powered planes
(CNN) – Last month, a dark blue six-seater aircraft took off from Cranfield Airport in England. Ordinarily, a 15-minute flight of 20 miles wouldn’t be remarkable – but this was the world’s first hydrogen-fuel cell-powered flight for a commercial aircraft.
The aircraft’s powertrain – the mechanism that powers the aircraft, including fuel tanks and powerplant – was built by ZeroAvia, a US and UK based company that develops hydrogen-electric engines. The technology uses liquid hydrogen to power fuel cells and eliminates in-flight carbon emissions. A conventional flight now produces half of the CO2 that was generated by flights in 1990, mainly thanks to an increase in fuel efficiency. However, due to record traffic growth due to rising passenger numbers and increasing volume of trade, the aviation industry is causing more emissions than ever – equivalent to 2% of global human-made carbon emissions. That percentage is set to rise, says Bobby Sethi, aviation professor at Cranfield University: Other industries like road transport are “decarbonizing faster” while aviation is lagging behind. Some companies are pushing climate-friendly solutions to catch up. The Electric Aviation Group’s 70-seat hybrid electric aircraft is expected to reduce CO2 emissions by 75% and is expected to go into service in 2028. Airbus recently announced that it would manufacture three hydrogen aircraft with up to 200 passengers by 2035.
But there is a long wait before these models hit the market and aviation now needs a solution, says Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO of ZeroAvia.
With funding from UK government backed entities such as the Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK, ZeroAvia aims to fill the aviation technology development gap and provide a sustainable solution for short and medium haul flights.
According to Miftakhov, who piloted ZeroAvia’s test flight, the company’s technology will be retrofitted into existing aircraft. He claims that in just three years, ZeroAvia will take hydrogen-powered airliners to the skies.
Airbus unveiled its zero-emission ZEROe concept in September 2020 and claims it will be commercially available by 2035.
An energy dense fuel
While electric aviation has been the focus for the past decade, the limitations of current battery technology are limiting its expansion. Lithium-ion batteries are currently around 48 times less energy-dense than kerosene, says Sethi.
This means that scaling is a problem for electric aviation. The largest electric aircraft ever flown is the 9-seater eCaravan. It has a range of just 100 miles – which requires a battery weighing 2,000 pounds.
Sethi emphasizes that in larger aircraft like a Boeing 747 the battery would far exceed the aircraft’s maximum take-off weight. “It’s only possible if battery technology improves significantly. So hydrogen is a more profitable option for fueling aircraft in the future,” he says.
Having previously worked with batteries for electric cars, Miftakhov is very familiar with their advantages and disadvantages, which is why he chose hydrogen. Compared to the “wildest predictions for battery technology,” hydrogen – which is three times as energy-dense as normal jet fuel – has greater potential, he says.
Starting with short trips
While long-haul flights cause more CO2 emissions per flight, short-haul flights cause more CO2 emissions per person and kilometer. For this reason, combating short-haul flights is the first step in reducing CO2 emissions in aviation. In 2019 Norway announced a 2040 target for zero-emission domestic flights, while both Austria and France rescued their national airlines during the Covid-19 pandemic to reduce the number of domestic flights.
ZeroAvia predicts that by 2023, engines will be developed that will allow planes with 10 to 20 seats to fly up to 500 miles – the distance between London and Zurich or Paris and Barcelona. By 2026, they will fly up to 80 passengers on the same route, says Miftakhov, which enables airlines to keep short haul routes while limiting environmental damage.
The company hopes to expand to medium-haul flights by 2030 – with more than 100 passengers up to 1,000 miles, the distance between London and Rome.
New fuel, new infrastructure
ZeroAvia’s ability to retrofit existing aircraft means the hydrogen-electric technology can be airborne in a short amount of time, says Miftakhov. In addition, the pilots do not need to be retrained as the controls and operations are the same.
However, switching to a new fuel requires a new infrastructure.
ZeroAvia has developed a model for a self-sufficient hydrogen airport in cooperation with the European Marine Energy Center (EMEC) at its location at Cranfield Airport. This includes an on-site hydrogen generator based on electrolysis, hydrogen storage and tank trucks.
50% of the hydrogen used for the test flight was produced from renewable energies. However, ZeroAvia is working to make hydrogen production fully renewable by the end of the year. Miftakhov says he’s starting with airlines and airports looking to install on-site hydrogen production.
Miftakhov gets out of the six-seater aircraft after the successful 20-mile test flight in September 2020.
ZeroAvia’s next step is to conduct an extended test flight to demonstrate its powertrain capacity by flying the six-seater on a 250 mile journey from an Orkney air force base.
As a pilot and avid traveler who “wants to stop destroying our environment”, developing a path to sustainable flying is both a personal and professional calling for Miftakhov. He hopes ZeroAvia can turn aviation from a harmful industry into a “good cause”.
“There’s something about the personal freedom that aviation gives you,” says Miftakhov. “It is very important whether you travel in person, reunite with your family, or take your children to different places and let them learn about different cultures.”
This story has been updated to clarify that the plane that made the milestone flight used fuel cells to store energy.