What if we could solve the aviation industry’s carbon emissions problem by using hydrogen fuel cells to power flights?
This is the idea that ZeroAvia, a California-based hydrogen fuel company will be testing in the UK, after receiving a £2.7m grant from the government. ZeroAvia will initially be testing to see if it can use zero-emissions hydrogen fuel to fly a 6-seater aircraft for a distance of up to 300 nautical miles (about the distance of London to Luxembourg).
“A 20-seater plane is about 10 tonnes of takeoff weight, which is hard to do with a battery.”
By 2022, says Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia’s founder and chief executive, the plan is to fly a 20-seater aircraft 500 nautical miles using hydrogen fuel cells, opening up a greener option for short-haul flights. Hydrogen fuel cells which are high in energy but which produce just water as a waste product, are one potential alternative to fossil fuels.
Finding a way to curb carbon emissions from flights is becoming an urgent problem. According to the Air Transport Action Group, aviation is responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources and is one of the fastest-growing sources of global emissions.
A number of companies are developing small electric planes that can run on a battery similar to those used in electric cars. But these aircraft will generally seat no more than 5 people.
Current battery technologies do not give enough power for heavier flights, says Miftakhov. “A 20-seater plane is about 10 tonnes of takeoff weight, which is hard to do with a battery,” he says.
ZeroAvia makes hydrogen powertrains — the powertrain is the main power-generating part in a vehicle — which can produce electricity at 700-800 watt-hours per kilogram, making them four times more efficient than the best batteries currently available.
ZeroAvia will use compressed gas hydrogen fuel cells similar to the ones used in the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity. Hydrogen-powered cars have failed to take-off so far, partly due to the high costs of creating a network of fueling stations for drivers.
“One of the biggest costs of hydrogen is transporting it. As soon as you have to do that, it kills the business case,” says Miftakhov.
This would be less of a problem in aviation, he says, because commercial aircraft fly set routes and need only a few fueling spots. ZeroAvia plans to install solar-powered hydrogen fuel production facilities right on the airfield, eliminating the need to cart the fuel around.
With this set-up, and a highly efficient powertrain, Miftakhov believes he can bring the fuel costs down to below those of conventional jet fuel.
The company, which only came out of stealth mode a month ago, hopes to have 10 customers 2022. In addition to the UK government grant, ZeroAvia is in the process of raising a further $10m to build out the technology and increase the 20-person team.
The company’s UK team will be based in Cranfield and Miftakhov says Europe makes an ideal initial launch market for the technology because there is more attention paid to emissions in the region than in the US.
ZeroAvia is one of a number of companies testing hydrogen as an aviation fuel. Alaka’i Technologies, based in Massachusetts, is developing a hydrogen fuel cell-powered multirotor aircraft. The company is, however, using a different type of hydrogen fuel, storing it as a liquid rather than a compressed gas.
Last tear Singapore-based HES Energy Systems unveiled plans to develop small hydrogen-powered planes that could carry up to 4 people as much as 5000km. Meanwhile in Germany, a consortium led by the DLR Institute for Engineering Thermodynamics has developed a four-seater hydrogen-powered aircraft, with plans to eventually apply the technology to a 20-seater plane.