Money Talks: ZeroAvia Nails Paine Field Site For Hydrogen Aircraft R&D

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The dream of zero emission flight is taking shape around electric aircraft, with batteries and hydrogen fuel cells running neck and neck to see who can take off first. For now it’s a toss-up, but the fuel cell firm ZeroAvia has a good shot at going mainstream within the next few years, thanks in part to a $350,000 Washington State grant for setting up new offices and R&D space at the Paine Field airport near Seattle, in Snohomish County.

Money Likes Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Aircraft

ZeroAvia has become a regular on the CleanTechnica radar since it launched in 2017, and the last 12 months or so have been especially busy.

In December 2020, the company announced a new $21 million Series A round of investment from a group led by Ecosystem Integrity Fund and the high-flying Breakthrough Energy Ventures group.

The spring of 2021 saw the company close on a $24.3 million funding round aimed at the market for 40+ seat aircraft. Led by Horizon Venture, that round drew in new investor British Airways along with the usual suspects: Ecosystem Integrity Fund, Summa Equity, Shell Ventures, and SYSTEMIQ along with Breakthrough.

The company also nailed down $13 million from AP Ventures along with Alumni Ventures Group, SGH Capital, and Agartha Fund LP. The round also included existing investors with the addition Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, too.

In October 2021, ZeroAvia announced that Alaska Air Group will incorporate the company’s ZA2000 hydrogen-electric powertrain into a De Havilland DHC-8-400 (Q400) aircraft, along with an equity stake and an option to deploy up to 50 retrofit kits in its regional aircraft.

Then last month, ZeroAvia announced a hookup with United Airlines for a $35 million equity stake and the purchase of up to 100 hydrogen-electric engines for United aircraft. The company also inked a deal with De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited. If all goes according to plan, that arrangement will send fuel cell technology to De Havilland’s popular Dash 8-400 turboprop jets (check out the CT ZeroAvia archives for more news).

A Fuel Cell R&D Center For Zero Emission Flight

The latest financial news for ZeroAvia was announced earlier this week. At $350,000, the Washington State R&D grant is peanuts compared to the private sector investments ZeroAvia has received, but it makes a huge difference in the company’s public profile.

The grant will go towards conversion of an existing warehouse at Paine Field into office space and R&D facilities, in support of the De Havilland – Alaska Group mashup.

This will be the third R&D center for ZeroAvia and it is by far its highest-profile one. The Paine Field location puts it front and center in the aerospace industry.

“The company has chosen to locate its third research and development site in Snohomish County, where more than 500 companies comprise the aerospace cluster. The county’s cluster produces more than $60 billion in annual revenues and supports 159,000 direct and induced jobs,” explains ZeroAvia.

“Paine Field is a unique airport, driving the economy of the region, having the newest commercial airport terminal in Washington state and serving as home to over 500 aircraft,” enthuses Snohomish County, adding that “Paine Field’s privately-owned commercial air terminal services a dozen western destinations. Located about 30 miles north of downtown Seattle, the airport offers high quality aviation facilities, including a FAA tower, Cat 1 ILS, Part 139 certification, FBO services and good access to Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, and Vancouver, B.C.”

But…What About The Hydrogen?

For those of you keeping score at home, ZeroAvia currently lists UK addresses at Cotswold Airport and WeWork at 5 Merchant Square in London, and its US address is 90 Skylane Drive at  the Hollister, California Municipal Airport.

The real question, though, is where all the hydrogen is going to come from. The pitch for ZeroAvia is zero emission flight, but the global hydrogen supply chain leans almost exclusively on natural gas and coal at the present time.

That’s a good question. The answer is the emerging green hydrogen field. The ZeroAvia website suggests that electrolysis will fit the bill, in which an electrical current from wind turbines or solar panels is deployed to push hydrogen gas out of water. For on-site hydrogen production at airfields, solar energy would be the more likely input.

The Green Hydrogen Race Is On

The next big question is whether or not green hydrogen production can keep up with demand. After all, ZeroAvia is not the only firm in hot pursuit of hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Last year CleanTechnica took a look at the field and noted that fuel cell 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.” That’s on top of early adopters in the warehouse and logistics sector, along with slow but persistent interest among some auto makers in the area of passenger cars.

ZeroAvia stakeholders could hold the key to the green hydrogen race. Shell, for example, has been active in the EU green H2 field. That technology could ripple into the US, especially in relation to offshore wind farms. Shell has expressed an interest in fostering a green hydrogen hub in Texas, leveraging the state’s existing infrastructure along with its considerable wind and solar resources.

Breakthrough is another example. In 2020 the group announced its support for a new green hydrogen R&D venture under the banner of the leading sustainable energy center EIT InnoEnergy. That’s an interesting twist, considering Breakthrough backer Bill Gates’s interest in nuclear energy, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

The US Department of Energy is also coming into play. The agency started ramping up its green hydrogen efforts during the Obama administration. Things accelerated during the Trump administration and really took off just weeks before Election Day 2020, when the agency announced a new green H2 R&D consortium along with a research agreement with the Netherlands. Perhaps they were on to something, because the Biden administration tapped hydrogen to launch its new “Earthshots” energy transition acceleration program in June of last year.

Meanwhile, last fall ZeroAvia also hooked up with the firm Hyzon to evaluate the company’s fuel cells. Hyzon has a relationship with the hydrogen firm Raven, which focuses on producing hydrogen gas from organic municipal waste. The process is similar to the steam reforming systems used to produce hydrogen from natural gas.

The two companies have already laid plans for 100 “hydrogen hubs” deploying municipal waste. Yet to be determined would be mitigation measures for any environmental impacts, including environmental justice issues, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Hydrogen fuel cell electric 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 3295 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey