ZeroAvia Gains Backing at High Levels

“Cannot be more proud and humbled to be a part of this stellar team!”  That’s power train developer Gabriel DeVault’s response to ZeroAvia’s Chief Financial Officer Katya Akulinicheva’s enthusiastic endorsement of Bloomberg LP’s news.  She listed the investors taking an active interest in ZeroAvia, including Ecosystem Integrity Fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the Amazon Climate Pledge Fund, Horizons Ventures, Shell Ventures and Summa Equity.

Already benefiting from a $16.3 million grant from Innovate UK, Aerospace Technology Institute and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), ZeroAvia will be able to push forward on plans to create a 19-seat hydrogen-powered commuter liner.

According to Bloomberg, “ZeroAvia aims to demonstrate that it can fly a plane 500 miles (804 kilometers) with as many as 20 seats by 2023. It wants to scale up to 1,000 miles with over 100 seats by 2030.”

With individuals such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos taking an interest, an aviation blog now feels a little like a financial report.  The $38 million raised from the UK government and private investors will enable ZeroAvia to replace fossil fuel burners with a hydrogen fuel-cell system.

A Full Dance Card

Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia’s Chief Executive Officer announced that 10 airlines are ready to buy his company’s 20-seat offering when the craft is available by 2023.  That’s an ambitious schedule, and plans to work with British Airways will help push things forward.  Throughout Europe, efforts are underway to decarbonizes domestic flights, so ZeroAvia’s initial small commuter liner will fit that mission profile nicely.

Bloomberg Green reports, “ZeroAvia aims to demonstrate that it can fly a plane 500 miles (804 kilometers) with as many as 20 seats by 2023. It wants to scale up to 1,000 miles with over 100 seats by 2030.”

Greentech Media reports Val Miftakhov explaining that ZeroAvia’s first Powertrain for 20-seater planes fits a neat market niche.  “About 10,000 such planes are operating in the market today, commonly used in hub-and-spoke operations such as air freight, where the planes are returning to a central depot on fairly predictable schedules, he said. Amazon Air, the retail giant’s freight fleet, has around 70 aircraft in operation.”

To power larger craft, ZeroAvia will need higher power density fuel cells.  “The power density is around 3 kW per kilogram for a small [rotor] turbine. For a Boeing 777, that figure needs to be around 10 kW per kg. In the automotive sector today the density is 0.7 kW per kg. As we work on that, increasing it further and further, we get more segments unlocked,” [Miftakhov] said.

“We’re already flying our prototypes. We have the world’s largest hydrogen-electric aircraft in the air,” he said. “So we’re not just making projections or running around with PowerPoints; we’re actually doing it. And we have a pretty good idea how to achieve a big competitive position in three years with an actual commercial product.”

Keeping it Local

Hydrogen is a great fuel except for the lack of local filling stations that can supply it.  California, for instance, has the greatest number of H2 stations, 42.  With 8,980 fuel cell cars owned or leased in all of America, the chance of finding a station is great – if you drive in the Los Angeles, San Francisco bay area, or are on the road to Reno.  Only two other H2 stations exist in the U. S., and they probably don’t have Quickie Marts attached.  There are doubtless even fewer such stations on airports anywhere.

ZeroAvia seeks to overcome that shortage by partnering with EMEC, the European Marine Energy Center Ltd., Enapter, and Aeristech.  At a macro level, EMEC uses wave and tidal action to produce electricity and hydrogen from excess generation on Orkney Island.  The site also hosts small companies that have various systems and devices to produce H2.   Neil Kermode, Managing Director at EMEC, sees great promise in the alliance.  “As well as providing green hydrogen to demonstrate zero carbon aviation, EMEC will develop a hydrogen refueling solution capable of dispensing volumes approaching the speed of commercial aviation. This will be a major step forward for the sector.”

Possibly part of the refueling solution, Enapter is maker of a patented anion exchange membrane (AEM) electrolyzer for hydrogen production from water and electrical energy.  They have reduced the “water splitting” system to a size transportable in a van.  Their modular AEM system can be “ganged” for different sized operations.  All such production will take place on the airport where hydrogen-powered craft will be deployed, obviating the need for transport from distant sources.

Squeezing More Power from H2

ZeroAvia is also partnering with Aeristech, which makes electric superchargers.  Since the motor driving the supercharger is small, light and not directly coupled to the engine, throttle response can be quick, since the 2.5 kilowatt compressor motor can spool up from 0 to 80,000 rpm in 0.3 seconds.  Pushing additional air through a fuel cell will evidently add to the output, like raising the voltage in batteries.  The company, expanding into aerospace, will move into “an advanced facility” in the West Midlands and add “up to 60 new roles, in highly skilled areas such as power electronics and motor drive engineering.”

Aeristech’s advanced motors and controllers may point the way in new power sources while backing the hydrogen project with ZeroAvia.  All players in the enterprise seem to be creative and ambitious.  So many brilliant minds working on a common solution should lead to clean skies and pollution-free transport.

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