ZeroAvia recently announced it is partnering with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Regional Jet Aviation to develop and retrofit regional jets with hydrogen-electric propulsion systems. ZeroAvia is responsible for the zero-emissions powertrain technology and Mitsubishi will cover design, certification, and the support experience.
Currently, ZeroAvia is working on the conversion of a 19-seat Dornier 228 turboprop aircraft to utilize a hydrogen-electric powertrain. A test flight of the aircraft is expected in the coming months. For the 19-seat powertrain, ZeroAvia is planning certification and market entry by 2024. ZeroAvia is looking at aircraft with 50-80 seats by 2026 and regional aircraft by 2028. ZeroAvia has already conducted over 35 test flights of a Piper M-class 6-seat aircraft using its hydrogen fuel cell powertrain. Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia’s CEO, answered some questions about the Dornier conversion for Cleantechnica.
Why was a 19-seat Dornier 228 aircraft with its zero-emission powertrain selected to convert to a zero-emissions powertrain?
We chose the Dornier 228 because it is a reliable and conventional airframe that is already certified. In addition, it has a considerable amount of space inside and great flight characteristics, including short take-off and landing and single engine performance (which is important given our R&D with the testbed aircraft is sequential for safety reasons — first flying in a hybrid configuration with one conventional engine and one hydrogen-electric engine, before converting both engines to hydrogen-electric).
What is the conversion process and how long will it take?
Our R&D program is targeting the first flight of the Dornier 228 in hybrid configuration already over the next couple of months. The first twin hydrogen-electric engine flight will take place mid 2022.
About how many people will work on the project and what is the cost?
We have a team of about 40 engineers working on the design, project management, production, and installation of the hydrogen-electric powertrain.
What kind of testing is required for the powertrain and for test flights before commercial operation?
We start with ground testing and foundational tests, such as the test we completed on our HyperTruck here. Then, we conduct ground tests of the fully functional and integrated configuration until we are happy with all the functional and technical parameters. Only after that we move on to flight tests which involve testing those parameters in the air. These tests will confirm technical characteristics of the powertrain, including max and cruise power, efficiency, etc..
What market would a 19-seat zero-emission aircraft serve?
A 19-seat aircraft would help serve the regional and subregional aviation market, which is our initial target for commercial operations starting in 2024. We are pinpointing this range to start because regional travel makes up a large portion of the aviation market and because it is important to the future of hydrogen-electric to sequentially build up R&D through different aircraft sizes. Additionally, over 95% of all commercial flights in 10- to 20-seat aircraft are below 500 miles.
Will pilots flying a zero-emissions plane require new training and certification?
The plane will fly the same, but given that the powertrain is going to be different, some additional training needs to be performed.
Are you anticipating that as battery technology improves it will become lighter, thus making electric airplanes more viable and common?
No, not anytime soon, and that is why we are focused on hydrogen-electric as the technology to deliver zero-emission flight across the industry by 2050. Battery technology needs to have about an order of magnitude improvement while maintaining safety parameters, which might happen at some point in the future, but with the current technology trajectory, it seems unlikely.