Much of the attention around electric aircraft involves moving beyond small, regional-hopping passenger planes into the long distance territory of jumbo jets. The US-UK startup ZeroAvia is one stakeholder leaning on hydrogen fuel cells to do the heavy lifting. That’s going to take a while to scale up. In the meantime, the company is also looking into the idea of tapping into new opportunities to decarbonize smaller airfields in Europe. That could provide a counterbalance to the flight-shaming movement, which advises ground travel for regional trips.
Electric Aircraft Vs. Sustainable Aviation Fuels
Before we get to those smaller airfields, let’s take a look at the big picture. CleanTechnica has been following the development of electric aircraft alongside the development of sustainable aviation fuels. Both have faced significant challenges, but year by year there have been signs of progress in both fields (see our sustainable aircraft archive here).
So far it’s been a three-way race between hydrogen fuel cells, battery packs, and biobased liquid fuels. More recently, the liquid fuel space has expanded to include electrofuels, which refers to synthetic fuels made from hydrogen and carbon. From a planet saving perspective that’s a no-go, considering that the global hydrogen supply is sourced primarily from natural gas or gasified coal. However, the emerging green hydrogen market is beginning to turn the tables.
We’re guessing that no single winner emerges, but that remains to be seen. The US Air Force, for example, started off with bio-based liquid fuels in the early 2000’s, and now it is exploring batteries, fuel cells, and electrofuels as well.
To add yet another wrinkle to the mix, the US Air Force recently designated X-plane status on a Boeing-NASA hookup aimed at developing a radical new fuel efficient aircraft design. The X-plane designation means that the Air Force has determined that the new technology has potential for military applications, though it’s still in the experimental stage.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Aircraft Startup On The Move
As for hydrogen electric aircraft specifically, CleanTechnica has been spilling plenty of ink on ZeroAvia since it first launched in 2017. We haven’t checked in for a couple of years, so we have some catching up to do.
As compared to battery electric aircraft, the pitch for hydrogen fuel cells includes faster fueling times along with the potential to save space and weight, though that may depend on whether or not fuel cells can continue to outpace next-generation battery technology.
A big breakthrough for ZeroAvia occurred in 2020, when the company nailed down $21 million in Series A funding from a group led by Ecosystem Integrity Fund and the high-flying Breakthrough Energy Ventures firm.
“The spring of 2021 saw the company close on a $24.3 million funding round aimed at the market for 40+ seat aircraft,” CleanTechnica noted in 2022. “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.”
Exploring The Opportunities For Decarbonizing Smaller Airfields
If you caught that thing about 40 seats, that’s significant. The initial goal was to develop hydrogen electric propulsion for a 9-19 seat aircraft traveling up to 300 miles by the end of 2025, building up to 40-80 seats and 700 miles by 2027.
The big leagues of air travel are still far in the future, but for now the focus on smaller electric aircraft and shorter flights can attack carbon emissions where they are most intense, on takeoff and landing.
That explains the latest news from ZeroAvia, in which the company has hooked up with the German on-demand aviation startup flyv. In a sort of airborne version of car sharing, the company deploys AI to match short-haul travelers with a fleet of small aircraft around the 10-passenger mark. The ZeroAvia connection provides an opportunity to provide their clients with zero emission flight.
“Flyv aims to tackle the limitations of conventional travel systems, under strain from escalating demand across many modalities. At the same time, many smaller airfields are under-utilized,” ZeroAvia notes.
“As new cleaner technologies reduce the operating costs, an increase in services is feasible,” they add.
That’s a good fit for ZeroAvia’s plans for a 9-19 seat aircraft, which is still reasonably on track. In a press statement, the company notes that it plans to enter its 600-kilowatt ZA 600 hydrogen electric aircraft for 9-19 passengers sometime around 20206.
“As part of the agreement, ZeroAvia and flyv will explore regional air mobility networks across Europe, exploring the potential economic and passenger benefits of introducing fuel cell-powered flight,” ZeroAvia explains.
That would be good news for European travelers in a hurry. The flight-shaming movement appears to be taking hold, as more passengers switch from short haul flights to ground travel. No word yet on whether or not that involves switching to rail, or switching to bus or private car.
If you have any insights on that score, drop us a note in the comment thread.
So, Where Is The Hydrogen?
Meanwhile, ZeroAvia is among the transportation stakeholders taking the green hydrogen bull by the horns. The company has been making arrangements to secure a supply of green hydrogen along with a hydrogen fueling infrastructure for its aircraft since 2022.
The big players in the airline industry are pushing the hydrogen infrastructure envelope, too. Earlier this week, Airbus, Avinor, SAS, Swedavia and Vattenfall announced a Memorandum of Understanding aimed at exploring the potential to introduce hydrogen fueling infrastructure for aircraft in Sweden and Norway. The study will include more than 50 airports among the two countries, including a number of those owned by Avinor in Norway.
“This cooperation will provide better understanding of hydrogen aircraft concepts and operations, supply, infrastructures and refueling needs at airports in order to help develop this hydrogen aviation ecosystem in both countries,” the partners explain.
“The work will also identify the pathways to select which airports will be transformed first to operate hydrogen-powered aircraft in both countries as well as the accompanying regulatory framework,” they add.
Progress on battery-electric flight and sustainable liquid fuels notwithstanding, it appears that the partners are banking on hydrogen fuel cells for near term decarbonization at scale.
“Hydrogen stands out as a key enabler as we pioneer a sustainable aviation future,” observed Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury, whose company has already committed to a strategy of launching “hydrogen aviation ecosystems” that promise the biggest bang for the buck.
The company has launched an accelerator program called Hydrogen Hub at Airports, which so far is focusing on France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the United Kingdom as well as Norway and Sweden.
Avinor CEO Abraham Foss similarly enthused that hydrogen is “emerging as a key energy carrier in future fossil free aviation.”
“Norway, as well as Sweden, is well positioned to be an early mover in the introduction of hydrogen-powered aircraft,” Foss added.
The CEO of Swedavia, Jonas Abrahamsson, also chipped in. “Hydrogen is expected to gradually become an increasing part of the aviation industry’s fuel mix in the future and will therefore have an increasing effect on the infrastructure and planning of our airports,” he said. Swedavia is Sweden’s state-owned airport operator.
All this high tech activity swirling around is very exciting, but it’s also important to keep in mind that aviation stakeholders can take some simple steps here and now to reduce carbon emissions in flight.
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Image: Hydrogen infrastructure for fuel cell electric aircraft taking shape (courtesy of ZeroAvia).
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