The Wait For Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Aircraft Just Got Shorter

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The jet-tracking social media account ElonJet has drawn renewed attention to the role of private and corporate aircraft in blurting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The issue can be an embarrassing one for electric car makers and other businesses that portray themselves as planet-savers. Fortunately, help is on the way. Batteries and fuel cells are in a neck-and-neck race to nudge zero emission electric aircraft out of the workshed and onto the runway.

The Zero Emission Aircraft Of The Future

Batteries and fuel cells have already scaled up for a wide range of heavy duty ground applications, including semi trucks, locomotives, and construction vehicles along with stationary energy storage systems. Sending them up on an airplane is a different matter entirely, but a flurry of activity this past fall indicates that zero emission aircraft are close at hand.

In the battery area, for example, last fall the US startup Eviation laid claim to the first public test flight of a 9-seat battery-powered airplane. The company Heart Aerospace is also on track for commercial development of its 30-seat, battery powered electric aircraft.

Hydrogen fuel cell aircraft have been emerging at a similar pace. In December, the US startup ZeroAvia announced that its retrofitted 19-seat Dornier 228 hydrogen fuel cell electric aircraft has received permission to fly from the UK Civil Aviation Authority.

The CAA permission slip validates ZeroAvia’s engineering and ground testing regimen, opening the gate to commercialization.

The Dornier builds on ZeroAvia’s earlier work on a six-seat electric aircraft. The initial focus is on a range of 300 miles for the 19-seater. ZeroAvia anticipates bumping that up to 700 miles for 40-80 seats by 2027.

UK Banks On Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Aircraft

The new CAA permit sets the stage for a series of test flights to begin in January, with a conventional engine on board for safety during the initial flights.

“The 19-seat twin-engine aircraft has been retrofitted in an engineering testbed configuration to incorporate ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-electric engine powering the propellor on its left wing, operating alongside a single Honeywell TPE-331 stock engine on the right for appropriate redundancy to allow the safe testing of the novel propulsion technology,” ZeroAvia explained in a press release.

If the test flights pan out, ZeroAvia expects to submit the paperwork for commercial versions of its ZA600 electric aircraft, ranging from 9 to 19 seats, by the end of 2023.

The next step will be the delivery of powertrains by 2025, for which ZeroAvia seems well prepared. The company states that is has logged pre-orders for 1,500 engines, and has formed partnerships with seven aircraft manufacturers along with fuel and airport partnerships.

As for why the UK is involved, that’s a good question considering that ZeroAvia’s home base is far away in the state of Washington.

ZeroAvia maintains a headquarters in the UK, where hydrogen-fueled transportation has been catching on more quickly compared to the US. The UK and Europe are also ahead of the US on on green hydrogen, with an assist from a vigorous offshore wind industry.

“Low carbon hydrogen is our new home-grown super-fuel which will be vital for our energy security and to meet our legally binding commitment to achieve net zero by 2050,” explained the UK government in an update to its hydrogen strategy last summer.

Follow the (Big) Money

ZeroAvia’s UK activity is funded through the £12.3 million HyFlyer II project, which builds on ZeroAvia’s previous work with the UK government and other stakeholders.

ZeroAvia has attracted interest from A-list private sector investors as well. By December of 2021 the company raised a total of $115 million from United Airlines, Alaska Air Group, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Shell Ventures as well as Horizons Ventures and Summa Equity.

Last July, Barclays Sustainable Impact Capital, NEOM, AENU, and International Airlines Group chipped in an additional $30 million in Series B funding.

What’s All This About Woke Capitalism?

Against the backdrop of strong investor interest in electric aircraft, policy makers in the US Republican party continues to double down on its “woke capitalism” canard, alleging that investing in fossil free technology is an unethical business practice that harms shareholders.

That may seem odd, considering that the Republican party has enjoyed a generations-long reputation as a friend of capitalism. However, much has changed within the past couple of years. Nowadays, the only business Republican policy makers seem friendly with (aside from gun manufacturers) is the fossil energy industry.

It’s not just campaign rhetoric. State-level legislators and attorneys general have begun to wield the power of the government against investment firms that “discriminate” against fossil energy, and mainstream media has taken note.

“Republicans and their longtime corporate allies are going through a messy breakup as companies’ equality and climate goals run headlong into a GOP movement exploiting social and cultural issues to fire up conservatives,” observed reporter Laura Davison of Fortune magazine last November.

“In recent months, Republicans have intensified their pressure campaign to stop corporate America from taking liberal stands, with punitive measures ranging from boycotts to legislation to shareholder fights,” Jessica Guynn of USA Today similarly observed in November.

“Now that Republicans have regained control of the House, key conservative figures are threatening political consequences,” Guynn added.

US Military Supports Electric Aircraft

Threaten away. Big business likes ESG investing to the extent that it is profitable, and the US Department of Defense is on their side. The US military has been a leading early adopter and market-pusher for fossil free technology. In 2020 the US Air Force, for example, outlined a net zero vision for the entire Department of Defense.

Electric aircraft are part of the plan. Last spring the Air Force sent its first pilots aloft in an eVOTL, a battery-powered electric aircraft engineered for vertical takeoff and landing, engineered by the US startup BETA Technologies. The aircraft, called ALIA, is designed for cargo duty but can also seat five passengers plus the pilot.

Not to be outdone, the US Army also piloted BETA’s eVOTL last year. The Army emphasized it is not ready to place an order, but they did indicate a strong interest based on the compatibility of the electric aircrafts with the Army’s Climate Strategy.

Potential benefits also include “design flexibility, reduced maintenance, reduced acoustic signatures, and less operations and support costs” according to the Army.

As of this writing, military interest in fuel cell electric aircraft appears confined to unmanned aircraft, with the Navy exploring a futuristic “infinite flight” fuel cell system powered by solar energy.

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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.

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