Hydrogen, the darling of net-zero, has seen its appeal spill over into the aviation sector. Although the industry accounts for comparatively less global carbon dioxide emissions than other transport sectors, it has not been immune to the drive for sustainability and efficiency accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Companies like the aircraft developer ZeroAvia are now eyeing hydrogen-electric powertrains as an opportunity to decarbonise aviation as the transport sector pushes towards net-zero.

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“If you look at business-as-usual growth, you see absolute emissions could triple or quadruple by 2050,” Val Miftakhov, the chief executive of ZeroAvia, tells fDi. “And if you think that every other industry decarbonises, then if we don’t do something drastic, aviation will become a larger and larger [part of the problem],” he says.

Founded in California in 2017, ZeroAvia creates zero-emission powertrains for both passenger and cargo planes. Prior to that, Mr Miftakhov, a Russian-born physicist-turned-entrepreneur, started the electric vehicle infrastructure company eMotorWerks in 2010, which is currently owned by Italian energy utility Enel.

With the majority of its R&D operations and staff now in London, ZeroAvia was drawn to the UK by its government and industry thinking around sustainable aviation, and the presence of industry giants such as Rolls Royce and Airbus. In June 2020, it completed the UK’s first electric-powered flight of a commercial-scale aircraft; three months later, it completed the first hydrogen-electric passenger plane flight. 

Decarbonise aviation

The aviation industry is responsible for about 12% of carbon dioxide emissions from transport sources, according to figures from Air Transport Action Group. The main producers are mulling over the opportunity to develop net-zero-emission aircrafts. Airbus aims to have its first hydrogen plane in service by 2035, while Boeing has not yet set out any such plans. 

The hydrogen aviation market is expected to reach a valuation of $27.68bn by 2030, and $174.02bn by 2040, according to global transport consultancy Avia Solutions.

ZeroAvia has been positioning itself to make the most of this growth, and investors have taken notice. After two successful funding rounds, which closed at $21.4m and $24.3m respectively in December 2020 and March 2021, the company lists British Airways, Shell Ventures, Amazon Climate Pledge Fund and Horizon Ventures among its investors. In its first funding round, it also received additional grant funding of $16.3m from the UK government to bring a short-haul 19-seat hydrogen-electric powered aircraft to market by 2023. The second funding round was raised to develop the larger 50+ seat aircraft, expected to be operational in 2026. Its total funding now stands at $74m. 

Geert van de Wouw, managing director at Shell Ventures, an early stage investor in the company, told fDi that “ZeroAvia offers innovative technology that could help the aviation industry decarbonise” and “we are very pleased to support them as an early stage investor”.

Expansion and innovation

ZeroAvia has also just opened a subsidiary in the Netherlands, and discussions are underway in Asia, Australia and New Zealand for the technology to be applied in regional aircraft. “As anything with aviation, it’s a global industry,” Mr Miftakhov notes.

The company had to withstand the heavy winds of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced commercial aviation to a global standstill for months during 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Between April and the summer of 2020, it also experienced disruption on the fundraising side, making it difficult to close deals. But “long-range strategic thinking happens at a time of serious crisis”, Mr Miftakhov says, adding that the shock generated some positive thinking once the initial disruptions tapered off.  

“A lot of people in the industry and the government bodies started to ask, coming out of this crisis, what do we want this industry to look like? What do we want ourselves to look like?”

Now, with the pandemic becoming a boon for the clean energy transition, renewable energy costs are at their lowest to date; however, intermittency remains a problem. 

For Mr Miftakhov, both of these have further advanced the case for hydrogen. There is greater impetus behind producing hydrogen from renewables and, at the same time, hydrogen electrolysers allow you to store energy that can cover the intermittencies or to fuel planes, he says.

“Hydrogen actually allows you to not only make aviation cleaner, but also to bring more renewable generation into the grid that you could otherwise not integrate.”

Public perception 

Safety concerns over hydrogen, particularly its flammability, persist, despite such concerns being overblown, Mr Miftakhov states. For some, the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 — where a spark ignited leaking hydrogen, causing the German passenger airship to crash — remains a point of reference for the use of hydrogen in aeromechanics. 

Since then, the anticlimactic use of hydrogen in the automotive industry also did little to help. Hydrogen was touted as a fuel for the future and rolled out for personal vehicle use at high costs. For Mr Miftakhov, this initial push with personal vehicles was “the worst place to start hydrogen adoption, because it is a low-utilisation scenario”.

“Hydrogen is great for heavy-duty, high-utilisation cases,” he explains. “Aircraft is a perfect example; heavy trucks are also a good example. Even taxis are a good example because you have to refuel them quickly.”

For Mr Miftakhov, you need to have the right sequence. “Once you have production, that drives costs down, but don’t start with cars too early because that’s what happened last time: the government spent a bunch of money and there was no adoption.”

Future of global connectivity 

Mr Miftakhov has experienced first-hand the havoc wreaked by Covid-19 in global travelling, and in the aviation industry in particular. Similar to many people across the world, he hasn’t seen his family in Russia for some time, due to the pandemic — a “painful” situation, he adds. However, when asked if the conscientious consumer of the 2020s will usher in an age of reduced air travel, Mr Miftakhov is confident that technology will rise to the challenge and humanity will not regress. 

“We think it’s about a technological solution, and want people to enjoy the connectivity — and there is a way to do it responsibly. We will have aviation as a major contributor to this transition,” he says.

“There’s mobility around the globe and people want to see each other, so I don’t think the right solution is to ‘go back to our caves’. It is better technology that will provide us with the solution, not a reduction in benefits, such as the ease in the ability to travel,” he asserts.

This article first appeared in the June/July print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.