Clean technology start-up ZeroAvia has announced plans to provide a hydrogen-powered electric powertrain as an alternative to both conventional aircraft engines and battery-based electric motors. Initially, it is looking to power fixed-wing aircraft with 10 to 20 seats and operating up to 500 miles. Operators would lease the equipment on a power-by-the-hour basis.
The California-based company reported that it has been flight-testing its system on a modified Piper M350 piston single since early 2019. It expects to start supplying the technology to aircraft manufacturers and operators in 2022.
ZeroAvia claims that flight-hour costs for its hydrogen-based powertrain will run around half of those of conventional turbine aircraft, taking account of lower fuel and maintenance costs, as well as better powertrain efficiency. The company also argues that hydrogen fuel will help the air transport industry resolve its environmental sustainability challenges.
“With land transport rapidly decarbonizing, fast-growing air transport is quickly becoming the leading emission source, so we must find ways to make aviation more sustainable,” said ZeroAvia founder and CEO Val Miftakhov. “Using hydrogen produced from local renewable energy is the most practical way to enable zero-emission aircraft of commercially meaningful size on traditional 300- to 500-mile regional missions.”
ZeroAvia proposes a complete replacement for conventional aircraft powertrains. That would include fuel tanks to store liquid hydrogen, a fuel cell system to produce electricity from hydrogen and oxygen, and electric motors to drive propellers. Integrating suitable fuel tanks into the architecture of existing airframes stands as one of the engineering challenges it faces.
Initially, the company aims to generate power in the range of 600 to 800 kWh, enough, it said, to power aircraft such as the Dornier 328, Twin Otter 400, and Pilatus PC-12, all of which now use conventional engines such as Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PT6 family.
In the longer term, Miftakhov said the technology could advance to deliver high enough power ratings to drive turbofans. The company continues to study ways to integrate its equipment with propellers made by MT-Propellers or any other propellers with an electric governor.
ZeroAvia is conducting flight testing under an FAA experimental research and development certificate. The company claims the tests have so far validated the powerplant’s key components and their integration with the M350’s existing engine, as well as fuel economy and maximum power delivery targets. As of August 14, the company had conducted around 10 test flights out of a planned 50 by year-end.
ZeroAvia plans to lease its powertrain to aircraft operators and provide fuel and maintenance under a power-by-the-hour business model. Miftakhov told AIN that his company intends to partner with liquid hydrogen suppliers and maintenance providers to create the necessary infrastructure.
Miftakhov cited an increase in the supply of liquid hydrogen as a by-product of renewable energy operations such as large solar energy and wind farms. He claimed that the approach already delivers clean fuel at prices fixed on 25-year contracts—offering aircraft operators an alternative to the volatility of jet fuel pricing.
ZeroAvia claims it has held initial discussions with several undisclosed regional airline operators about adopting its alternative powertrain. Miftakhov maintained that the switch from conventional engines could radically change the operating economics of short-haul routes in a way that would ensure the viability of commercial services between small airports.
The ZeroAvia leadership team includes engineers and executives from companies such as automotive groups Tesla and BMW, artificial intelligence specialist Nvidia, eVTOL aircraft pioneer Zee Aero, industrial gas supplier Air Liquide, and investment group SystemIQ. Miftakhov previously founded electric vehicle infrastructure company eMotorWerks and served as its CEO. His new company has just started a funding round to raise about $10 million in fresh investment for the program.