Hydrogen Fuel Cell Flight Backed By A-List Green Hydrogen Backer

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When US wealthy man Bill Gates launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures back in 2016, the clean tech investor group leaned toward nuclear energy. Nukes are still on the menu, but now it appears that Gates is banking on green hydrogen to dish up the clean power meat and potatoes. Following a pair of green H2 investments, BEV has just chipped its share of a new $24.3 million round of funding to help get the US fuel cell aircraft startup ZeroAvia off the ground. ZeroAvia will have to get its hydrogen fuel from somewhere, and BEV is positioning itself to hand over the H2 on a silver platter.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures Pivots To Green Hydrogen

BEV is a creature of the Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which popped up to great fanfare on the heels of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Initially, BEV seemed to be focused on nuclear energy on account of Gates’s interest in the nuclear firm TerraPower. Prospects for a new fleet of nuclear power plants in the US are kind of dim, but TerraPower was positioning itself for a big play in China.

Well, that was then. Between one thing and another, China appears to be on the back burner and Terrapower is still hammering away at its cutting edge modular nuclear reactor with an assist from the Energy Department. Meanwhile the company is pivoting into new revenue streams such as medical radiology, and BEV is getting busy with other forms of clean tech.

A Giant Green Hydrogen Step For BEV…

Last year BEV took a deep dive into the green hydrogen pool by helping to jumpstart an EU initiative called the European Green Hydrogen Accelerator Center, which aims at deploying renewable hydrogen to foster the “substantial displacement of hydrocarbons in energy intensive industrial applications (i.e. steel, cement, chemicals), heavy transport (i.e. maritime and heavy duty) and fertilisers.”

“Building on the political momentum, the Center will use green hydrogen as a driver for the deep decarbonisation of European industry,” explained Breakthrough Energy senior director Ann Mettler.

“Against this backdrop, it will create a pipeline of pioneering large-scale projects, launch a new generation of public-private partnerships and accelerate the speed of delivery from mega- to gigawatts,” Mettler added.

…And Another One

Another interesting development occurred earlier this month, when Bloomberg reported that the Israeli startup H2Pro raised $22 million for its green hydrogen system from BEV and the clean tech heavy hitters Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg. Other investors are Hyundai Motor Co., which has been chasing the fuel cell EV dream, and Sumimoto, which has a hand in the platinum-curious H2 capital venture fund AP Ventures.

As part of the green hydrogen gold rush, H2Pro seeks to replace fossil-sourced hydrogen with renewables. There are a number of different pathways, and water is currently the main focus of activity. Low cost renewable energy has opened the door for cutting the cost of electrolysis, which deploys electricity to “split” hydrogen from water.

The cost of electrolysis is still relatively high, and that’s where H2Pro comes in. As described by Bloomberg reporters Akshat Rathi and Will Mathis, standard electrolyzers rely on an energy intensive, two-part process. The H2Pro system relies partly on thermal energy to help reduce overall costs.

“By tweaking the current methodology, H2Pro says it will be able to make green hydrogen for $1 per kilogram by the second half of this decade,” Rathi and Mathis reported. “That’s far cheaper than current projections by clean energy research group BloombergNEF, which doesn’t expect that low a price until 2050,” they enthuse.

For comparison, as of 2019 the cost of green hydrogen ranged from $2.50 to $6.80 per kilo.

Who’s Gonna Buy All This Green Hydrogen?

It looks like BEV is going to make darned sure that fuel cell aircraft get all the green hydrogen they need, because last December they chipped in for a $21 million round of funding for ZeroAvia, and now here they are back with another round.

The new $24.3 million round of funding is aimed at a development program leading to a 50-seat regional aircraft sporting a 2-megawatt hydrogen-electric powertrain. That may seem rather unambitious, but not in the context of electric flight. Battery-powered airplanes are not much farther along. Finnair, for example, recently inked a deal for a fleet of 19-seaters with a 400-kilometer range from the Swedish startup Heart Aerospace, with a target date of 2026 for commercial operation.

More to the point, there is an eager market for short-haul airplanes. Airline companies are desperate to decarbonize short-haul air travel before they lose out to other alternatives including railways, roadways, and waterways.

The ground transportation issue is especially keen in the EU, which could explain why first-timer British Airways has joined existing investors in the new round of funding. The others are Horizons Ventures as leader, along with BEV, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, Summa Equity, Shell Ventures (there they go again) and the “think-and-do” think tank SYSTEMIQ.

ZeroAvia plans to get a 10- to 20-seater with a 500-mile range into the air as early as 2024, towards a 50+ seat target by 2026. With the new round of funding under its belt, the company is also looking at a 100-seat, single-aisle aircraft by 2030.

So far, all is going according to plan.

“The company previously completed its first electric flight in the US in 2019, then built the second flying prototype in the UK, and conducted its first electric flight in June of 2020,” ZeroAvia reports. “In September 2020, it achieved the world’s first hydrogen-electric flight of a commercial-grade aircraft.”

ZeroAvia’s methodology should warm the hearts of battery-electric flight fans. The idea is to configure the fuel cell system to accommodate a removable battery system, as a step toward hydrogen-only flight.

Look Out, Here Comes More Green Fuel For Airplanes

Considering all the activity going on in the aviation biofuel sector, it’s fair to ask why British Airways is bothering to dip a toe into the fuel cell and green hydrogen area.

Part of the answer is the potential for significant savings on maintenance costs. Though technical challenges remain before fuel cells can power a larger aircraft, smaller fuel cell aircraft could save airlines a bundle on operating costs.

ZeroAvia is also banking that the cost of green hydrogen will compete with jet fuel. In a presentation hosted by the US Department of Energy last fall, ZeroAvia calculated a scenario of $2.5 per kilogram for green hydrogen by 2023, which would mean the equivalent in conventional jet fuel would cost $1.50 per gallon. According to the Argus jet fuel index, the current US price for conventional jet fuel is $1.67 per gallon, but the cost of jet biofuel is expected to range much higher for the foreseeable future, which would seem to put ZeroAvia on firm footing.

Also on the plus side for the ZeroAvia model, the prospects for decentralizing green hydrogen fuel production are looking good, meaning that airlines would not have to depend on the global shipping industry for their fuel supply.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Fuel cell aircraft courtesy of ZeroAvia.

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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.

Tina Casey has 3240 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey