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$3.3 Million Grant For Fuel Cell/Electric Aviation Startup ZeroAvia

The aviation startup ZeroAvia has received a £2.7m (US$3.3 million) grant from the UK government. The funds will be used to support continued development of fuel cell/electric propulsion technology to reduce aviation CO2 emissions. The company was founded in 2017 by Val Miftakhov, who is also the current CEO. He answered some questions for CleanTechnica about the new grant.

The aviation startup ZeroAvia has received a £2.7m (US$3.3 million) grant from the UK government. The funds will be used to support continued development of fuel cell/electric propulsion technology to reduce aviation CO2 emissions. The company was founded in 2017 by Val Miftakhov, who is also the current CEO. He answered some questions for CleanTechnica about the new grant.

Image Credit: ZeroAvia

1. What will the new grant money be used for?

This new government funding supports our HyFlyer project, which is a key step for supplying commercial operators and aircraft manufacturers by 2023. The project will drive development of the powertrain into a long-distance flight-proven system, and will culminate in a UK-based 250-300 nautical mile (NM) flight on a Piper M-class six-seater aircraft. The learnings from this program will flow directly into the development of our 900 kW powertrain and will pave the way for delivery of the 500-mile 19-seat aircraft by 2023.

2. Does the company adapt existing aircraft to use hydrogen fuel cell technology or will it manufacture its own aircraft?

We utilize already certificated airframes because we want to support the aerospace industry with zero-emission options they can fold into their existing operations and offer to existing customers. This is the fastest way to bring sustainable solutions to the market and this is why we are a powertrain company first and foremost. By partnering with existing airframe companies we avoid costly and time consuming certifications that would be needed on a completely new airframe design. Additionally, using already certificated airframes means we do not need to be experts in every inch of the aircraft, only our powertrain. This also means customers and their employees will already have experience and parts for maintaining many of the systems on these aircraft, while we support them with the powertrain.

We expect most of our business to be in what’s called ‘forward-fitting’ – providing our powertrain option to be requested by the operators to be installed in the new aircraft they order from the aircraft manufacturers. Aircraft OEMs will be our partners, not our competition. This approach allows us to focus on the real bottleneck in decarbonizing aviation – the powertrain. There are plenty of great aircraft manufacturers that build excellent, efficient airframes. Over time, as ZeroAvia technology becomes widely used, we expect to work with aircraft manufacturers to help them design airframes better adapted to this new fuel type – just like the airframes evolved in the decades following jet engine introduction 50 years ago.

3. In the ZeroAvia flight endurance test on Youtube, in the description it was written: “800 WH / mile was achieved at 100 kts indicated airspeed (a little over 110 mph — actually, it’s closer to 120 mph at 1,500 ft altitude – the indicated airspeed is normally a fraction of the true airspeed as air density becomes lower with altitude and indicated airspeed is calibrated to sea level pressure and density, consuming just 80-90kW of power. For comparison, this is substantially less than a similarly sized electric ground vehicle would consume at that speed (e.g., Tesla Model X).” How much less did the ZeroAvia propulsion technology consume than a Model X would on the ground?

At a steady 120 mph, Tesla Model X consumes over 90 kW. Note that of course the car has to travel on the road and aircraft flies direct through the air, generally cutting the miles traveled by 20-60% depending on the terrain.

How does the plane’s consumption compares with other common electrical devices like a home AC system?

The 80-90 kW power consumption is ~20x the typical consumption of such large household loads as AC system / electric water heater / clothes dryer / etc..

4. Can you describe the basic components of the hydrogen fueled electric propulsion system?

Our powertrain leverages the best-in class components from several partners and integrates them using our proprietary hardware and software to create a complete powertrain system. We have full redundancy across our powertrain, which results in much higher safety and reliability than a typical liquid fuel powertrain.

The fuel cell system uses hydrogen to produce electricity in a low-temperature chemical reaction. The only output from this process is water. The electricity produced by the fuel cell powers the motors that drive the propellers. We install the powertrain in already certified airframes, starting with the Piper M Class for our current demonstrator and test platform. This initial system develops 260 kW peak power. We are now in the process of scaling that system up to 900 kW peak power.

5. What is the size of the battery pack and where are you sourcing the batteries?

The initial test flights were done on battery power from several Chevy Volt packs. ZeroAvia uses these battery-powered flights for the initial validations of the electric propulsion part of the powertrain — inverters, motors, and all our integration hardware and software. After initial battery testing, we quickly move to the fuel cell powered tests, and our primary powertrain configuration is powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Our fuel cell systems can produce up to 150 kW each, and there are two on board the 6-seat aircraft, more on board the 19-seat aircraft. Hydrogen-generated power is the best way to achieve meaningful zero-emission travel in aviation, at costs that make sense for the commercial space. Even compressed-hydrogen fuel-cell systems are already four times more energy dense than the best available battery systems. Our longer term plan is to use liquid hydrogen, which will bring us a further two to three times increase in energy density (therefore more than an order of magnitude higher than the best batteries of today), which can get us close to the energy density of jet fuel itself. In 5-7 years, we expect liquid hydrogen storage to be safety-qualified in aircraft, allowing us to achieve 1,000+ ranges in even larger aircraft.

6. Where do you source the hydrogen?

ZeroAvia will work with its fueling partners to produce zero-carbon hydrogen on-site at the airports. Since aircraft use a lot of energy, even a relatively small airport provides demand for multiple tons of hydrogen per day, making on-site production the most economical way to supply fuel. We expect one of the most dominant production technologies to be water electrolysis from on- or near-site renewable power sources. For example, most of the airports in the US Southwest have more than enough unused surface to produce enough hydrogen from on-site solar to repower ALL sub-500 mile flights from those airports.

7. What is the estimated cost for the hydrogen for a 500-mile flight?

A 19-seat aircraft will need about 100kg of hydrogen for a 500-mile flight. This is compared to about 150 gallons of jet fuel for the same flight. The total cost of hydrogen is projected to be about half of the cost of jet fuel for the same flight, assuming at-scale on-site hydrogen production, and using the cost of jet fuel that small operators pay today. Another major component of the operating costs – engine maintenance – sees even stronger reduction – up to 4x lower than a comparable turbine engine maintenance. As a result, the total per-flight costs of ZeroAvia-powered aircraft can be 30-50% lower than the same jet-fuel powered aircraft.

8. Is the vision to one day replace gas-powered regional flights with hydrogen fuel cell/electric technology?

Yes, and more. I’ve always been passionate about aviation. It’s been my hobby for over a decade and I hold licenses to pilot both airplanes and helicopters. After building and selling eMotorWerks, a smart-grid EV charging company, I set out to tackle what I see is the next big problem in the electrification of transportation – aviation. We wanted to focus on the real and sizeable segment of aviation from the very beginning. That meant to focus on a relatively sizeable aircraft, flying for a relatively long duration right from the start. That said, we expect to see larger and larger aircraft to be repowered with our technology as it progresses over time. Within 15-20 years, we expect hydrogen fuel cell based powertrain to penetrate most of the commercial aviation, with the exception of perhaps long-haul international flights.

9. Why was the Piper M-class plane selected to adapt?

While our initial commercial target is a 19-seat aircraft, we needed a smaller aircraft to start testing our powertrain. However, it also needed to be large enough for us to test some of the major concepts behind our powertrain design — most notably dual redundancy — utilizing the same target component base as we would use in the commercial powertrain size. That meant that we would look at 6-seat aircraft, and among those, Piper M class has the best combination of aerodynamic characteristics, cost, and cabin comforts. The latter was an important consideration for demonstration flights, and for potential use of this smaller powertrain for air taxi operations. Featuring a full ‘club seating’ 4-person cabin rivaling the comfort of the business class in a typical airliner, Piper M-class can be quite attractive. In fact, some of our potential operator partners indicator substantial interest in this option.

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