(CNN) — Last month, a navy blue, six-seater aircraft took off at Cranfield Airport in England. Usually, a 15-minute, 20-mile flight wouldn’t be noteworthy — but this was the world’s first hydrogen fuel-cell-powered flight for a commercial-size aircraft.
Airbus unveiled its ZEROe zero-emission concept in September 2020, and claims it will be commerically available by 2035.
But there is a long wait until these models come to market and aviation needs a solution now, says ZeroAvia founder and CEO Val Miftakhov.
With funding from UK government-backed bodies including the Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK, ZeroAvia wants to plug the gap as aviation technology develops, and provide a sustainable solution for short and medium haul flights.
Miftakhov, who piloted ZeroAvia’s test flight, says the company’s technology is designed to be retrofitted into existing aircraft. He claims that ZeroAvia will have hydrogen-powered commercial planes taking to the sky in just three years.
An energy-dense fuel
While the spotlight has been on electric aviation for the past decade, the limitations of current battery technology restricts its expansion. Currently, lithium ion batteries are around 48 times less energy dense than kerosene, says Sethi.
Sethi highlights that in larger planes, like a Boeing 747, the battery would far exceed the plane’s maximum take-off weight. “It’s just not possible unless battery technology improves significantly, which is why hydrogen is a more viable option to fuel aircraft in the future,” he says.
Starting with short haul
ZeroAvia predicts that by 2023, it will have developed engines that can power 10 to 20-seat aircraft flying up to 500 miles — the distance between London and Zurich, or Paris and Barcelona. By 2026 they will be flying up to 80 passengers the same distance, says Miftakhov, enabling airlines to keep short haul routes while limiting environmental damage.
The company hopes to expand to medium haul flights by 2030 — flying over 100 passengers up to 1,000 miles, the distance between London and Rome.
New fuel, new infrastructure
ZeroAvia’s ability to retrofit existing aircraft means it can get its hydrogen-electric technology in the air in a short time frame, says Miftakhov. Additionally, pilots won’t have to retrain, as the controls and operations will be the same.
But switching to a new fuel will require new infrastructure.
At its base in Cranfield Airport, in collaboration with the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), ZeroAvia has created a model for a self-sufficient hydrogen airport. This includes an on-site, electrolysis-based hydrogen generator, hydrogen storage facilities and refueling trucks.
The hydrogen used to fuel the test flight was made using 50% renewable energy, but ZeroAvia is working towards making its hydrogen production entirely renewable by the end of the year. Miftakhov says he is starting with airlines and airports that are keen to install on-site hydrogen production.
Miftakhov steps out of the six-seater plane after the successful 20-mile test flight in September 2020.
ZeroAvia’s next step is to carry out a longer test flight to showcase its powertrain’s capacity, by flying the six-seater on a 250-mile journey from an airbase in Orkney.
As a pilot and avid traveller, who wants to “stop trashing our environment,” developing a way to fly sustainably is both a personal and professional calling for Miftakhov. He hopes that ZeroAvia can take aviation from being a damaging industry to a “good thing again.”
“There’s something about the personal freedom that aviation gives you,” says Miftakhov. “Whether it’s personal travel, reuniting with your family, or taking your kids to different places and having them experience different cultures, it’s very important.”
This story has been updated to clarify that the plane undertaking the landmark flight used fuel cells to store energy.