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ZeroAvia launches world's largest hydrogen-electric plane. Is it the future of 'guilt-free' flying?

a white plane is on the ground against a blue and peach colored sunset
Image credit: Unsplash

Today, aviation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Right now our plane rides account for just between 5-10% of total human climate impact, but by 2050, the impact of flights could multiply by five, accounting for between 25-50%.

As British and American aviation startup ZeroAvia definitely puts it, hydrogen-electric powertrains are the “only viable solution” to scale sustainable aviation for commercial use, solving aviation’s emissions problem. Now, their 19-passenger “powertrain” is the first successful hydrogen-electric powered aircraft.

In the next two years, the startup plans to launch its first commercial offerings at 9-10 passengers a flight, and expand to 40-80 by the following year, 100-200 by 2030, and eventually 200+ by 2040, surpassing the average full-flight.

"This is a major moment, not just for ZeroAvia, but for the aviation industry as a whole, as it shows that true zero-emission commercial flight is only a few years away,” Val Miftakhov, Founder and CEO of ZeroAvia said in a statement.

“This is only the beginning - we are building the future of sustainable, zero climate impact aviation. Our approach is the best solution to accelerate clean aviation at scale."

While with any climate solution, an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed, ZeroAvia makes it clear why, in the long-term, hydrogen-electric may be the most promising solution.

The hydrogen-electric engine uses what’s known as green hydrogen, hydrogen generated by local renewable energy and produced through the process of electrolysis. According to ZeroAvia, theirs will be stored at or near airports. The process results in 90% lower lifecycle emissions than traditional turbines and 60% lower operating costs.

Solutions like hybrid-electric engines, battery-electric engines, sustainable aviation fuels, and hydrogen combustion planes are being developed by companies like Air Canada, Eviation, Air Company, and AirBus, respectively. Many major airlines are most interested in sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) because it requires the least infrastructure changes.

However, as ZeroAvia demonstrates in their comparison, while scalable with a moderate level of net impact and emissions reduction, SAFs don’t guarantee the needed reduction in climate impact. Hydrogen combustion writes a similar message in the sky.

Battery-electric engines make up for the lack of climate impact, having a slightly better impact than hydrogen-electric, however, as the MIT Technology Review explains, the weight of the battery often precludes large aircraft use.

Battery-electric works for private jets. Rolls-Royce is already making that goal a reality. Yet, in order to successfully decarbonize the airline industry, large aircraft for both commercial and industrial flights need to be the priority. So in terms of scalability, battery-electric is likely severely limited.

ZeroAvia has some ambitious near-future plans. While this month’s test flight was a retrofitted prototype, the company says the flight went as expected puts them on a direct path to a certifiable configuration which will be finalized and submitted for certification in 2023.

Since 2017, ZeroAvia raised $140 million in funding. Recently, several airlines have poured funding into the company, including United, Alaska, and American Airlines, Fast Company reports. Currently ZeroAvia has more than 1,500 engine preorders from these top airlines. Amazon is also an investor and hopes to use the sustainable aircrafts for delivering packages.

At least $17 million of its 2022 funding is from the UK government. As the Secretary of State for Business, Grant Shapps put it, the January 19 flight “demonstrates how government funding for projects like these is translating into net zero growth.”

It’s a “hugely exciting vision of the future – guilt-free flying and a big step forward for zero-emission air travel.”


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