Earlier this week, ZeroAvia completed the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered flight of a commercial-size aircraft. The historical event took place at ZeroAvia’s research and development lab in Cranfield, England.
When we first reported on ZeroAvia last year, the company was just getting off the ground, literally, and was working out of Northern California, and building the first iteration of its hydrogen fuel cell powertrain. They have since moved headquarters to Loughborough, England, and have expanded to maintain offices in the US, Japan, China, and Korea.
ZeroAvia is a hydrogen powertrain company, they work with existing aviation manufacturers and aviation operators, offering a zero-emission, lower-cost powertrain choice. They design the hydrogen powertrains to fit seamlessly into existing aircraft – they aren’t aircraft manufacturers. Therefore, existing aircraft manufacturers are actually the ZeroAvia’s partners, not its competition.
This approach allows ZeroAvia to focus on the real bottleneck in decarbonizing aviation, which is the powertrain. There are already enough aircraft manufacturers that build robust and efficient airframes that will be able to accept ZeroAvia’s fuel cell powertrain. By using existing aircraft, ZeroAvia can bring zero-emission commercial flight to fruition much faster and at a fraction of the cost of having to engineer and design an entirely new aircraft.
“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.” – Val Miftakhov, CEO, ZeroAvia
The aircraft used in the flight this week was a Piper M-class six-seat plane. It completed taxi, takeoff, a full pattern circuit, and landing without any issues. This retrofitted Piper M-class is now the largest hydrogen-powered aircraft in the world. This is just the start for the company, which tells us that eventually, and without any new fundamental science required, hydrogen-powered aircraft will match the flight distances and payload of the current fossil fuel aircraft.
This major milestone on the road to commercial zero-emission flight is part of the HyFlyer project, a sequential R&D program that is supported by the UK Government and follows the UK’s first-ever commercial-scale battery-electric flight, conducted in the same aircraft in June.
With the help of the HyFlyer project, ZeroAvia is working with key partners including the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) and Intelligent Energy to decarbonize medium-range small passenger aircraft by demonstrating powertrain technology to replace conventional engines in propeller aircraft.
Having accomplished this goal, ZeroAvia will now focus the next and final stage of its six-seat development program – a 250-mile zero-emission flight out of an airfield in Orkney before the end of 2020. The demonstration of this range is important because it is roughly equivalent to heavily-traveled major commuting routes such as Los Angeles to San Francisco and London to Edinburgh.
“It’s hard to put into words what this means to our team, but also for everybody interested in zero-emission flight. While some experimental aircraft have flown using hydrogen fuel cells as a power source, the size of this commercially available aircraft shows that paying passengers could be boarding a truly zero-emission flight very soon. All of the team at ZeroAvia and at our partner companies can be proud of their work getting us to this point, and I want to also thank our investors and the UK Government for their support.”- Val Miftakhov, CEO, ZeroAvia
Aviation makes the use of hydrogen much easier than ground transportation. The aircraft all have set routes, and always depart and arrive at an airport. Installing hydrogen refueling stations at airports would be pretty simple – much more than doing so for passenger vehicles or even at truck stops, because many more refueling stations are necessary with ground transportation.
ZeroAvia was also recently invited by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to join the JetZero Council and help lead the UK towards the ambitious goal of achieving the first-ever zero-emission long haul passenger flight.
The company is initially targeting the 500-mile range in 10-20 seat aircraft that are used for commercial passenger transport, package delivery, agriculture, and more. However, they believe that eventually, and without any new fundamental science being required, that hydrogen-powered aircraft will match the flight distances and payload of the current fossil fuel aircraft. Meaning, the sky’s the limit on how large of an aircraft they can convert to run on hydrogen.