The Airline Industry Is Catching Hydrogen Fuel Cell Fever

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The dream of all-electric flight just got bumped up in scale last week, when United Airlines announced that it has dibs on 100 electric aircraft from the startup ZeroAvia. Fans of battery-powered mobility may have to take a back seat, though. ZerioAvia specializes in hydrogen fuel cells for zero emission flight, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

Zero Emission Flight Gets Off The Ground

In contrast to all the activity surrounding electric technology for ground vehicles, the electrification of air travel has a long way to go. Still, consensus appears to be building that zero emission aircraft will become commonplace in the near future, if only on the smaller end of the scale in terms of passenger capacity and range.

United Airlines is all over that trend. Earlier this summer the company inked a deal for battery-powered electric aircraft through its new  United Airlines Ventures investment fund, in collaboration with Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Mesa Airlines, and Heart Aerospace.

The agreement calls for Heart to deliver 100 of its 19-passenger ES-19 battery-electric aircraft, which will have a range of up to 250 miles.

100 Hydrogen-Electric Aircraft In The Works

United’s latest foray into electrification appears to give hydrogen fuel cells the edge. United didn’t just squeeze out an agreement to buy 100 aircraft from ZeroAvia last week. It also bought a stake in the company.

“United today became the largest airline to invest in zero-emission, hydrogen-electric engines for regional aircraft, the latest move toward achieving its goal to be 100% green by reducing its GHG emissions 100% by 2050, without relying on traditional carbon offsets,” United enthused.

United’s equity stake in ZeroAvia is part of a new $35 million funding round that includes existing investors Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, AP Ventures, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Horizons Ventures, Summa Equity, and Shell Ventures, as well as another new member of the zero emission flight club, Alaska Airlines.

ZeroAvia already has a headstart on hydrogen-electric flight for smaller aircraft, having successfully tested a 6-seater last fall. The test flight was another step in a pathway which appears to put ZeroAvia on track to introduce a 10- to 20-seat aircraft with a 500 mile range into the market in 2024.

That’s peanuts. The new injection of financial muscle is aimed at developing ZeroAvia’s ZA2000-RJ engines for larger aircraft, reportedly targeting United’s 50-seat CRJ550 regional jets.

The new engines can be used in pairs and can be retrofitted onto existing aircraft. United expects to order 50 initially with an option for another 50, on a 2028 timeline for commercialization.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Flight Is Really Real — No, Really!

If fuel diversification is the name of the game, there will be a place for both batteries and fuel cells in the sparkling green airline industry of the future.

Naturally enough, ZeroAvia is determined to carve out a larger hunk of cheese for fuel cell flight (check out the CleanTechnica archive for additional coverage). The company has been forming stakeholder partnerships to secure its footing in the global economy, including the technology driven investor group Rose Cay as well as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, ASL Aviation Holdings, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Regional Jet Division, and Rotterdam the Hague Airport.

One especially interesting development occurred on December 14, when the company De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited let word slip that it, too, expects to purchase hydrogen-electric engines from ZeroAvia for its popular Dash 8-400 turboprop jets. If all goes according to plan, that number could skyrocket in the near future.

“The companies intend to work together on a service bulletin for the Dash 8-400 type certificate offering ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-electric engine as a line-fit option for new aircraft, as well as developing an OEM-approved retrofit program for in-service aircraft,” De Havilland explains, noting that it the Dash 8-400 track record includes delivery of more than 625 aircraft and a total of more than 11 million flight hours, with the number of trips totaling more than 550 million passengers.

De Havilland is certainly looking forward to playing a standout role in the expansion of fuel cell flight. The company also observes that deployment of ZeroAvia’s hydrogen fuel cell technology in a full sized Dash 8-400 will foster the development of a 76-seat Alaska Airlines aircraft with a range of 500 nautical miles.

Green Hydrogen & The Truly Zero Emission Fuel Cell Of The Future

This is all well and good except for that little thing about hydrogen in a hydrogen fuel cell. The primary source of hydrogen today is natural gas, and to some extent coal, which means that a zero emission hydrogen fuel cell is not necessarily the sustainability hero that some make it out to be.

However, as previously noted in CleanTechnica and elsewhere, the hydrogen supply chain is beginning to diversify. One main driver is the falling cost of wind, solar and other renewables. That has made it economically feasible to deploy electrolysis systems, which push hydrogen gas out of water by applying an electrical current.

Biogas, industrial waste gas, and wastewater are among the other sustainable hydrogen pathways under development, but so far most of the activity has focused on electrolysis scale-up and cost reduction. That’s partly because hydrogen production can also juice wind and solar development. Electrolysis systems can soak up excess output from wind turbines and solar panels when demand would otherwise be low. Hydrogen production could can also help work around bottlenecks in electricity transmission, enabling wind and solar development without the need for additional infrastructure.

As for scaling up, ZeroAvia’s partnership with Mitsubishi provides a clue. Mitsubishi is among the legacy engineering firms shifting over to fuel cell technology and green hydrogen.

Mitsubishi’s contribution to the green hydrogen scene includes a new gas turbine for power generation, which is engineered to transition out of natural gas as the supply of green hydrogen increases.

Mitsubishi debuted the new turbine in Utah, where policy makers have been dropping hints about a green hydrogen future for the state. That follows a similar green hydrogen signal from Texas earlier last year.

In the latest development on that score, the organization Western States Hydrogen Alliance is on the move. WSHA already has all 11 Western states under its umbrella plus Ohio, Louisiana (not surprising, considering the green ammonia angle), and Florida (now, that’s a surprise). Last week they announced a change in name, to United States Hydrogen Alliance, in order to support the hydrogen and fuel cell markets nationwide.

To the extent that USHA will coordinate with the Mitsubishi-backed Western Green Hydrogen Initiative, that’s good news for ZeroAvia and other fuel cell fans, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: Hydrogen fuel cell aircraft courtesy of United Airlines.

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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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