US Startup ZeroAvia Sends Green Hydrogen Fuel Cell Powertrains Flying — CleanTechnica Interview

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In a bit of news that could mean the end of flight-shaming, the US aircraft startup ZeroAvia now has a stable of A-list investors in its pocket and is ready to bring zero-emission, green hydrogen fuel cell flying powertrain to the traveling public. If all goes according to plan, the ripple effect could hit other hard-to-decarbonize industries, proving once and for all that nothing cannot withstand the power of the R&D.

green hydrogen fuel cell zero emission aircraft
Flight-shaming begone: US startup ZeroAvia ramps up plans for zero emission green hydrogen fuel cell flight.

Zero Emission Green Hydrogen For Deep Decarbonization

Parts of the transportation sector have already begun shifting over to zero or low emission technology, primarily with a lift from new battery technology. The rapid pace of EV battery improvement is making it difficult for other sustainable energy options to catch up, but biogas, liquid biofuel, and recovered waste gas are also in the transportation fuel mix.

Another up-and-comer is green hydrogen, though the green H2 supply chain still needs to ramp up (more on that in a second) as global demand for hydrogen increases.

That’s where things get interesting. Though hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars have been slow to catch on, fuel cell forklifts have already broken into the warehouse and logistics sector. More recently, other transportation sectors have begun to latch onto the sparkling green H2 economy of the future.

The field of interest covers just about any heavy-duty application of which you can think. Activity is surging in the heavy duty truck area and movement is also afoot among the makers of buses, ferry boats, cargo ships, and locomotives, in addition to aircraft.

For power-sucking applications like these, fuel cells offer three key advantages over battery packs, at least for now. Fuel cells refuel quickly, they take up less space, and they are lighter than their battery equivalents.

There is also a fourth factor, depending on the application and location. Green hydrogen can be produced at or near its point of use, by using wind or solar power to run an electrolyzer system that splits hydrogen from water. That would eliminate the need to ship aviation fuel around the countryside.

A-List Investors Heart Green Hydrogen Fuel Cell Flight

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the latest news from the startup ZeroAvia. CleanTechnica has been following the startup well, from its startup (check the CT ZeroAvia archives to catch up), and last week the company dropped an embargoed press release into our inbox that describes another huge milestone.

ZeroAvia has announced that it can speed up the development of its hydrogen-electric powertrain for a small aircraft, thanks to a new $21 million Series A round of investment from a group led by Ecosystem Integrity Fund and Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Ecosystem Integrity is new to the CleanTechnica radar, but Breakthrough is a well-known name around these parts. The outfit is supported by Bill Gates, among others, and it launched on the coattails of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The initial focus appeared to include nuclear energy through Gates’s other venture, TerraPower, but more recently both Breakthrough and Bill Gates have pivoted to next-generation concentrating solar power.

That’s just for starters. The list of follow-on investors includes the familiar faces of Amazon Climate Pledge Fund and Shell Ventures, along with newcomers (well, new to CleanTechnica) Horizons Ventures and Summa Equity.

What’s All This About Fuel Cell Flight?

CleanTechnica had a chance to speak with ZeroAvia founder and CEO Valery Miftakhov (of Google, McKinsey, DOE, and eMotorWerks among others) last week, and he made the pitch for air travel to get going on the decarbonization trail before other sectors of the global economy leave it behind in the dust.

“If you keep going with business as usual, ground transport is going to zero; trucks, cars, power sector, too. If aviation [emissions] just continue going up and up it will be the largest source of emissions, and nobody wants that to happen,” said Miftakhov.

Until recently, the airline industry had a good excuse to not make the pivot into hydrogen and fuel cells. Higher costs and less-than-mature technology posed formidable obstacles. In addition, green hydrogen was just a twinkle in somebody’s eye until just the past couple of years.

Miftakhov suggested looking at the auto industry for a sense of how rapidly things have changed just in the last year or so (following edited for clarity and flow):

“We just started seeing over last couple years much better performing (fuel cell) stacks. It’s been a long time in the making, but if you look at the market and the types of products that are in the market from established automakers, only in the last couple of years do we see competitive cars — the Mirai, for example. It’s been happening real time just in the last year or two.

“Also, there is the viability of hydrogen as transportation fuel, with the availability and cost of renewable energy. Solar and wind are now the cheapest sources of energy. If you are building a new power plant there is no point to build anything else; hydrogen is basically a cheap electricity source.”

“Coal and gas are just trading one emission source for another,” he emphasized, “So if you really need clean, the cost [for hydrogen from electrolysis] is now night and day.”

Legacy Industry & Energy  Firms Pounce On Fuel Cells & Green H2

As an additional argument for a rapid transition, Miftakhov noted that interest in the fuel cell area includes both startups and experienced legacy companies like DuPont and 3M.

“Electrolysis is a fuel cell in reverse, so fuel cell research helps electrolysis. You see applications across the board and as other industries become decarbonized,” he said.

That kind of cross-technology interplay is also at work in the clean power and green hydrogen fields. Shell is just one oil and gas giant making the pivot to green H2, a trend that is amplified and supported by its offshore wind investments. Likewise, solar energy is also in play, as illustrated by BP’s proposed Australian venture.

If you’re thinking that solar angle could be a perfect fit for on-site hydrogen production at airports, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Wind turbines and airports don’t exactly make magic together, but solar panels are a whole new ball of wax. Think rooftop solar as well as ground-mounted arrays, and you’re on the same track as ZeroAvia.

The company already has relationships with several green hydrogen producers. Other sustainable sources are also on the table, but Miftakhov said that electrolysis is the most scalable-ready for on-site production, at least for now.

Airline Industry To Be Saved From 1,000 Cuts

Circling back around to those other transportation sectors, Miftakhov also made the case for the airline industry to decarbonize before it loses the market for short-haul travel.

“In the last two to three years you start seeing aviation sustainability being a real thing…two years ago we started seeing flight-shaming, and people started paying attention. For example, in Sweden flights began declining. The flying public began seeing it as a real problem,” he said.

“Then the pandemic hits; as with any crisis, a serious crisis makes people think about what are we going to do now…[how] do we emerge from this and how to run our business in a new way — how to run it sustainably?” he added.

That finally brings us to the main point, which is how ZeroAvia expects its technology to get a toehold in the aviation market.

That thing about short-haul flights is the key. That’s where the industry airline industry faces competition from highways and railways. If and when the COVID-inspired explosion in online conferencing fades away, remote communication will also dampen the enthusiasm for flight.

Conversely, in some parts of the world the demand for short haul flights could rise, making it all the more imperative to decarbonize the aviation industry on a global level. Short haul flights contribute a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, due to the energy required for takeoff and landing.

ZeroAvia is addressing the short haul market with plans to introduce a 10-20 seat hydrogen fuel cell aircraft, with a near time range goal of up to 500 miles as early as 2023. The company expects that significant savings in fuel and maintenance costs will be more than enough to offset the up-front cost of fuel cell technology in that market, with sustainability and noise reduction also counting among the benefits.

The first step toward the 2023 goal has already come and gone. ZeroAvia achieved a short test flight on a modified Piper M-class 6-seater last September, and the company is eyeballing a 250-mile flight sometime this winter.

The company plans to have its new powertrain commercial-ready in 2023, which is just around the corner. So far it has 10 or so airlines interested in the 10-20 seat/500 mile model, and those early adopters will be in a good position to scale up in the coming years, when ZeroAvia expects to introduce a hydrogen fuel cell aircraft that can seat more than 100 passengers for a flight of more than 1,000 miles.

Here in the US, ZeroAvia has already caught the eye of the US Department of Energy, among other stakeholders in the green H2 and fuel cell industries.

The US Department of Defense could come into the picture. DOD is an early solar power adopter, it has its own sprawling network of air facilities, and the US Air Force has just announced an ambitious plan to decarbonize the entire US military, making it ripe for a takeover by on-site green hydrogen production.

​Hold on to your hats!

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Photo: Hydrogen fuel cell aircraft test flight courtesy of ZeroAvia via prnewswire.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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