The aviation industry’s global trade group says electric airplanes are unlikely to be flying commercial routes before 2040. That pessimism from the International Air Transport Association is off by nearly two decades according to ZeroAvia, a fast-moving electric flight startup popping out of stealth mode today. For six months already, the Hollister, Calif.–based firm has been flying the world’s largest zero-emissions aircraft—the fuel cell-equipped prop-plane pictured above—and ZeroAvia vows that its powertrain design will be cutting both carbon and costs for regional flights in just 3 to 4 years.
“Right now we have an aircraft that’s six seats and 2 tons as an R&D demonstrator. Next year we’ll have a 20-seat aircraft and we’ll submit the design for [Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)] certification,” says Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia’s founder and CEO. “That’s what drives the 2022, 2023 timeline. At that point, we’re expecting to have certification and put the system into commercial service,” Miftakhov predicts.
ZeroAvia is making bold claims of the type that don’t usually pan out, but its leadership has credibility. Miftakhov founded and led eMotorWerks, a world leader in EV charging stations and grid-smart charging that Rome-based power giant Enel acquired in 2017. Several more core team members hail from eMotorWerks. Others joined from automakers Tesla and BMW, Paris-based industrial gases producer Air Liquide, and processor firm NVIDIA.
ZeroAvia is part of a wave of activity by zero-emissions transport developers who are returning to fuel cells after a decade of focus on battery-powered transport. Phoenix-based electric semi-truck developer Nikola Motor expects fuel cell propulsion to solve a slew of liabilities associated with battery-powered transport, including recharging delays, limited range, and weight. Railway operators in the U.K. and Germany are testing fuel cell trains to get away from diesel engines. And China, the world leader in battery EV deployment, recently started investing heavily in fuel cell technology.
Miftakhov says ZeroAvia’s founders set out to find the best low-carbon option for regional flights, which meant they needed something with enough power and energy to fly a 10-20 seat aircraft roughly 500-800 kilometers. By early 2018, they were convinced that only hydrogen fuel cells could meet those requirements, and they began evaluating, ordering, and integrating the required components. Those include composite tanks to store hydrogen gas, a fuel cell stack to convert hydrogen to electricity, power electronics, and motors.
By this February, ZeroAvia had assembled its six-seater, 275-kilowatt test plane, and had received FAA experimental flight certification. Miftakhov says the company’s first production powertrains will generate 600-800 kilowatts, which he says is “right in the middle of the power range” for the Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboshaft engines employed on many regional aircraft.
Rather than build airplanes, ZeroAvia plans to lease its powertrain and also supply hydrogen fuel to aircraft manufacturers or airlines. “We’re targeting power levels that are in use today and we are able to utilize the airframes that exist today, with minor modifications,” says Miftakhov.
ZeroAvia's boldest claim is that customers signing up for their zero-emissions aviation package will save money in the process. Miftakhov says manufacturing the fuel cell powertrain will be “similar” in cost to today’s turbodiesel equipment. But he says the fuel cell system will cost roughly half as much to operate, thanks to projected lower maintenance costs, higher efficiency, and cheaper fuel.
That last claim reflects a big bet on electrolysis and renewable energy. ZeroAvia plans to deliver zero-emissions performance by producing hydrogen via electrolyzers running on wind and solar power. Filling stations for fuel cell cars in California sell mostly cheaper “fossil” hydrogen made from natural gas, yet charge 2-3 times as much as the going price for gasoline (per km of driving delivered). But electrolyzers and renewable energy are getting cheaper, and Miftakhov plans to avoid hefty delivery charges paid by hydrogen filling stations by setting up on-site electrolysis plants at regional airports.
Even if ZeroAvia can overcome its technology challenges, Miftakhov acknowledges that it must overcome a big psychological hurdle: convincing airlines and the public to trust unconventional technology to reliably lift aircraft skyward and safely deliver them to their destinations. “We’re spending a good amount of mental cycles on that, thinking through how we want to approach initial product launch and education of both the operators and the flying public,” he says.
Miftakhov says FAA design certification—a rigorous, multiyear task that Boeing skirted with its troubled 737-MAX jetliner—should help validate safety. He also points to the additional redundancy provided by a fuel cell powertrain. Whereas component failures in a turbodiesel engine tends to shut down the attached propeller, failures in a fuel cell stack or multi-module power electronics should only reduce power to the propeller.
Redundancy is also touted by Eviation, one of the leaders in battery-powered flight. The Israeli startup recently signed up a first customer, Massachusetts-based short-hop flyer Cape Air, for the lithium-battery-propelled 9-seater that it hopes to have certified by 2022.
Zero-emissions aircraft, whether battery or hydrogen-powered, may also benefit from a psychological advantage: guilt relief. Concern over climate change is already fueling “flight-shaming” and a resurgence in rail travel in Europe, where trains offer a low-carbon—though sometimes slower—alternative to regional flights.
If ZeroAvia succeeds, it may be possible to travel fast without shame.
Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.