ZeroAvia Testing Hydrogen-Powered Electric Airplanes

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ZeroAvia, based in Hollister, California, announced this week it is developing short range electric airplanes powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Its plan is to build airplanes that can carry 10 to 20 passengers on flights of no more than 500 miles. ZeroAvia claims its airplanes will be cheaper to manufacture and operate than conventional aircraft.

ZeroAvia electric airplane
Credit: ZeroAvia

Emissions from aircraft are receiving lots of attention these days, since the airline industry is responsible for a significant proportion of global carbon dioxide output. In Sweden, almost a quarter of travelers during the past 12 months elected to take a train rather than fly on business or for vacation travel.

Right now, Greta Thumberg, the 16-year old climate activist from Sweden, is sailing rather than flying across the Atlantic to attend a climate conference in New York. Her decision has unleashed a torrent of criticism from detractors who accuse her of everything from blatant self promotion to mopery on the high seas.

According to The Verge, the Federal Aviation Administration authorized ZeroAvia to operate its prototype for test flights earlier this year. The prototype uses a Piper M-class airframe that seats 6 and has a takeoff weight of 4,000 pounds. The company says it is currently the largest electric airplane operating anywhere in the world.

A number of test flights have been completed, each one designed to validate key components and demonstrate that they have been successfully integration into the complete powertrain system. Those tests have confirmed the company’s “fuel” economy and maximum power delivery targets.

The road ahead for ZeroAvia is filled with challenges. Zunum Aero, a startup backed by Boeing and JetBlue, recently laid off dozens of employees and ceased operations after it ran out of money, according to Forbes. Zunum’s business plan was very similar to ZeroAvia — small 9- to 12-seat planes making short, regional trips.

Transitioning all components of the transportation sector to zero emissions will be essential if the world hopes to significantly reduce global carbon emissions but, to date, the batteries needed for electric airplanes have been too heavy for flights of more than a few miles. The ZeroAvia concept could be the breakthrough the world needs to achieve zero emissions flights.

There is a problem that needs to be overcome first, however. Most commercially available hydrogen, particularly in North America, comes from reforming natural gas, most of which is obtained by fracking, one of the dirtiest forms of energy production in existence. No company can thump its chest about zero emissions flight if the fuel is derived from raping the Earth and spewing massive quantities of methane into the air.

The announcement from ZeroAvia is potentially a good sign for zero emissions transportation in the future but the company has a long road to travel yet before it makes electric flight commercially viable. We will keep you updated as to any new developments from the company.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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