Is hydrogen the best path to zero emission flight?

When I first sat down with ZeroAvia founder, Valery Miftakhov, to talk about his newest venture I admit I was a little skeptical.

That's because we were there to talk about hydrogen fuel cells being used to power commercial aircraft in two to three years time. I'm not a big fan of hydrogen-powered cars for a number of reasons, the biggest being I don't believe we'll ever build out a hydrogen refueling infrastructure that could refuel the millions of cars on the roads. We'd basically need to replace the 168,000 gas stations in the US with H2 stations, which cost between 1.5 and 2 million dollars each.  It would just cost way too much to do so, and who would pay for them?

Couple that with the fact that electricity is already ubiquitous - we just need to install the charging stations. That advantage alone is enough to propel battery-electric vehicles over HFC cars. However, at the same time, I also thought hydrogen fuel cells may be one of the answers for long haul trucking. There wouldn't need to be many H2 stations installed; just a couple hundred across the country in strategic truck stop locations might be enough.

Valery-Miftakhov
ZeroAvia's founder, Valery Miftakhov

Aviation makes the use of hydrogen even easier. The airplanes have set routes, and always depart and arrive at an airport. Installing hydrogen refueling stations at airports would be even easier than doing so at truck stops. In fact, the more I chatted with Miftakhov, the more this concept made sense. 

If the name sounds familiar, it's because we've mentioned Miftakhov here before. Valery Miftakhov was the founder of eMotorWerks, the California-based company that pioneered smart-grid EV chargers, introducing the JuiceBox Pro 40 EVSE. He sold the company to Enel in 2017 and started ZeroAvia.

“Due to the rise of carbon emissions, we wanted to have a real impact on the aviation industry with sustainable methods of travel. For that, we needed to target a significantly larger aircraft, which is able to supply travelers with relatively long-distance destinations.” - ZeroAvia founder, Valery Miftakhov

Miftakhov then set out tackle what he saw as the next big problem in the electrification of commercial transportation: aviation. He took the approach of a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain because it has four times more energy density than the best electric batteries available today, and provides the lowest operating costs. That would enable zero-emission commercial aviation now, not sometime in the future when batteries are lighter and energy-dense enough to be used to fully-power large commercial aircraft. 

Miftakhov doesn't envision becoming an aircraft manufacturer. Instead, ZeroAvia is a powertrain company, working with existing aviation and other manufacturers and aviation operators, offering a clean, lower-cost powertrain choice, fitting seamlessly into the existing large markets and business models of the aviation industry.

“Hydrogen fuel cell systems are currently about four times more energy-dense than the best available batteries, even with compressed gas H2 storage. In five years, we actually expect liquid hydrogen storage to be safety-qualified in aircraft, allowing us to achieve 1,000+ mile ranges in even larger aircraft.” - ZeroAvia founder, Valery Miftakhov

Therefore, existing aircraft OEMs will be the company’s partners, not its competition. This approach allows ZeroAvia to focus on the real bottleneck in decarbonizing aviation: the powertrain. There are plenty of great aircraft manufacturers that build excellent, efficient airframes that will be able to accept ZeroAvia's fuel cell powertrain. 

ZeroAvia's Technology:

  • The powertrain is a combination of the best-in-class components from several partners, including the proprietary integration hardware and software that runs the system and interfaces with the aircraft systems (avionics, etc). ZeroAvia also works with the component partners to jointly improve the components for aviation use.
  • The fuel cell uses hydrogen to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity. Unlike burning hydrogen, which generates energy at high heat, the fuel cell converts hydrogen into electricity at a low temperature. The electricity from the fuel cell powers the motors, which propel the aircraft.
  • ZeroAvia has aviation-certified third-party components such as hydrogen fuel cells, motors, and inverters.
  • With the company’s proprietary integration software and hardware, it completes its energy-efficient and cost-effective powertrain system.
  • The company has full redundancy across its powertrain, resulting in a safer and reliable system compared to other conventional methods of travel.
  • ZeroAvia installs the powertrain in existing certified airframes, starting with the Piper M Class for its current demonstrator and test platform. This initial system develops 250kW peak power.

The Business Model:

  • ZeroAvia plans to offer customers the hydrogen powertrain as a zero-emission option for existing new airframes. 
  • The powertrain will drop into the airframe and require some minor modifications, such as the addition of hydrogen fuel tanks above the wings.
  • Customers will pay for the powertrain and the fuel - which ZeroAvia will supply - through a leasing model called “power by the hour,” in which the customer pays a set fee per hour of operation. This gives the customers a fixed cost without the worry of unstable hydrogen prices.
  • ZeroAvia estimates the cost savings over long-term operation of the hydrogen powertrain due to lower costs of fuel, increased efficiency and less maintenance required
  • At commercial launch, the hydrogen fuel will be supplied by existing hydrogen suppliers 
  • ZeroAvia plans to produce renewable hydrogen onsite at airports at electrolysis stations that will be powered with solar or wind power located at or near the airport.

Funding and business plan: 

    • ZeroAvia was recently awarded a 3.3 million dollar grant by the UK Aerospace Research and Technology program, administered by the Aerospace Technology Institute, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK, to support  ZeroAvia’s HyFlyer project.
    • ZeroAvia is initially targeting 500-mile flights to serve the short-haul and commuter air travel markets, which make up nearly half the commercial flights worldwide. 
    • Powered by ZeroAvia powertrains, smaller zero-emission aircraft will be able to achieve similar per-seat economics as today’s large regional jets, allowing economical use of smaller local airports for point-to-point travel with virtually no security lines or delays, and a much more pleasant overall flying experience. 
    • In addition to passenger transport, the ZeroAvia powertrain will have applications across other use cases including cargo, air taxi, agriculture, as well as across the aircraft types, including manned and unmanned fixed-wing, rotorcraft, and everywhere in between.

ZeroAvia

Is this the future of Aviation?

We're not sure, but it does seem like it can be the present. One of the things Miftakhov seemed so excited about was that this technology is ready now, we don't have to wait years for it to be viable.

Decarbonizing aviation is critical if we want to really reduce our overall carbon emissions and aggressively take on climate change. If Miftakhov's fuel cell powertrains can accomplish that goal and save operators on fuel costs and maintenance, what's not to like about it? Let us know your thoughts on hydrogen-powered aircraft in the comments section below.