British Airways Backs ZeroAvia's Plan for Hydrogen Airliner

 - March 31, 2021, 9:33 AM
ZeroAvia's plans for a hydrogen-powered 50-seat regional airliner would appear to be based on converting an existing model such as an ATR 42. (Image: ZeroAvia)

British Airways is among a group of investors backing a new $24.3 million funding round to support ZeroAvia's plans to develop a 50-seat airliner powered by hydrogen. According to the U.S.-based start-up, which has now raised nearly $74 million—including $53 million in private investment and a UK government grant of around $16.3 million—it aims to get the 50-seater into commercial service by 2026 and believes that by 2030, a 100-seat airliner could be operating with its 600 kW hydrogen-electric powertrain. Applications of the hydrogen-electric system on smaller aircraft are anticipated as early as 2024.

The UK airline has not disclosed how much it has contributed to ZeroAvia’s latest funding round, which was also supported by Horizons Ventures and existing backers Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, Summa Equity, Shell Ventures, and Systemiq. In a statement issued Wednesday, the carrier avoided making a specific commitment to operate the 50- or 100-seat aircraft, but CEO Sean Doyle said that the investment in hydrogen-powered aircraft is part of its plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions on short-haul routes by 2050. In January, ZeroAvia joined the Hangar 51 technology incubator program established by British Airways' parent company International Airlines Group.

ZeroAvia has not made clear whether its planned 2 MW propulsion system would be used to convert an existing airliner or be employed as standard equipment on a new aircraft design. Its efforts to date have been based on converting smaller aircraft such as the Piper M Series, which it is using as a flying testbed, and it already has plans to convert aircraft with between 10 and 20 seats to hydrogen, delivering a range of up to 500 miles. An image released with the announcement showed an artist’s impression of an aircraft bearing a resemblance to the existing ATR 42 regional airliner.

The company faces competition from Universal Hydrogen, which has partnered with fuel cell and energy distribution specialist Plug Power to develop plans to convert aircraft to hydrogen propulsion. The California-based company has identified existing 40- to 60-seat regional airliners, including the ATR 42 and the Bombardier Dash 8, as suitable for conversion and says that these could enter commercial service beginning in 2025 and have a potential range of over 600 miles.

Universal Hydrogen's plans for how hydrogen will be supplied to aircraft appear to be more advanced. Its concept for operations sees refillable hydrogen capsules being delivered to airports and fitted in the rear of the aircraft, which the company says will avoid the need for costly new fuel supply infrastructure.

Meanwhile, last week Finnair signed a letter of interest paving the way for the purchase of 20 of Heart Aerospace's electric-powered 19-seat ES-19 regional airliners. The Swedish manufacturer says that it now has commitments for 300 aircraft from 12 airlines and that it intends to have the ES-19 ready to enter service in the third quarter of 2026.

Also last week, French start-up Aura Aero announced plans to certify a hybrid-electric 19-seat model called the Electrical Regional Aircraft by 2026. The Toulouse-based firm is already developing an all-electric light aircraft called the Integral E, which it expects to start flight testing in 2022.

Based on its grant from the UK Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, issued through the Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK, ZeroAvia is basing its development work at Cranfield in central England. In September 2020, it flew the hydrogen-electric Piper aircraft for the first time, and it is now conducting ground simulation trials ahead of a planned cross-country flight. This may include a flight from the Orkney Islands, where there is a wind- and tide-based hydrogen production plant, to the Scottish mainland.

ZeroAvia also announced that former Air France-KLM vice president Christine Ourmieres-Widener is joining its board of directors. She was formerly CEO of European regional airlines CityJet and FlyBe and a governor for the International Air Transport Association.

The company advisory board has also been bolstered by the appointments of Mike Friend, a retired Boeing senior technology director and consultant for Japan’s Mitsubishi Aircraft, which has been working on a long-term project to develop a new airliner. Another new appointment to the advisory board is Mike Blair, who was formerly vice president of air operations for package delivery group FedEx and director of fleet and government sales with Cessna Aircraft.

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