When the six-seat Piper M-Class airplane took off from Cranfield Airport in the United Kingdom and remained airborne for eight minutes last fall, the people watching it were viewing history in the making. What made this flight so historic was that it was the first commercial airplane propelled entirely by hydrogen-electric fuel.
ZeroAvia, a company leading the development of alternatives to traditional jet fuel, created the aircraft
with partners in the United Kingdom and the United States. The flight was the realization of the first of many goals toward the ultimate outcome of zero carbon emissions.
As the world began shifting toward zero-carbon solutions such as wind, solar, and nuclear power, the idea of the aviation industry joining the cause seemed like an insurmountable challenge. This was despite the fact that aviation is responsible for 2.5 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
However, this number does not tell the whole story. For example, carbon dioxide contributes approximately 50 percent of the aviation industry’s radiative forcing. The term “radiative forcing” describes the industry’s total contribution toward factors that cause an increase in the average temperature across the world. The aviation industry also contributes a large percentage of contrails, which is water that an aircraft dispels into the environment as it flies.ZeroAvia leads the aviation industry in improving efficiency
For the past 30 years, the aviation industry has had an impressive record of improving its efficiency. Airline mechanics have created more efficient operations and engines, resulting in a 50 percent reduction in per-passenger carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, the rise in airline traffic has offset its efficiency improvements over the past several years. Commercial flights have increased by more than 20 percent since 2016, and the aviation industry
anticipates serving 10 billion passengers each year by 2050.
ZeroAvia formed in 2017 as a response to the growing global environmental crisis. The company uses hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity to power airplanes. Water is the only waste generated by aircraft using hydrogen-electric fuel. Hydrogen produces 100 times the energy of lithium batteries and at least three times the energy of standard jet fuel.
The United Kingdom government had so much faith in the flight of the Piper M-class airplane that it provided ZeroAvia with a direct grant. ZeroAvia’s mission matches that of the Jet Zero Council, an organization created by the U.K. government. The stated mission of the Jet Zero Council is to support U.K. production facilities creating sustainable fuels for aviation. The organization also supports the accelerated manufacture and design of zero-emission airplanes. U.K. government lends its support to ZeroAvia for development of 19-passenger aircraft
ZeroAvia is currently developing a 19-passenger aircraft powered by hydrogen-electric fuel capable of flying 350 nautical miles. According to Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia intends to offer commercial flights using this type of plane by 2023. ZeroAvia has also set the goal to fly an 80-seat aircraft at least 500 nautical miles by 2026. By 2030, Miftakhov states that ZeroAvia will fly 100-seat single-aisle jets. Other companies in aviation industry look to ZeroAvia as an example
The chief technology officer at Airbus announced in September 2020 that the company would prioritize developing propulsion systems using hydrogen-electric fuel. Airbus is the largest manufacturer in the aviation industry. The ZeroE project is part of the U.K. government’s stimulus package targeting green developments.
Airbus has already developed three concept airplanes that could fly with hydrogen-electric fuel from ZeroAvia by 2035. These aircraft include:
- A 100-seat turbo propeller capable of flying 1,000 nautical miles.
- A 200-passenger jet capable of flying 2,000 nautical miles.
- A blended-wing design that varies considerably from the design of current airplanes.
Grazia Vitaldini, the CTO of Airbus, states that the third aircraft in the concept design stage could carry more passengers over a further distance than the first two types. However, Airbus has not yet released details about how the company plans to accomplish this. ZeroAvia working to combat challenges of hydrogen fuel
Propelling aircraft with hydrogen-electric fuel is not without its challenges, including how to store it. Hydrogen fuel requires significantly more storage space compared to traditional jet fuel because of its lower density. Companies must also store the alternative fuel source at a temperature of 420 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in dense and heavy tanks.
One solution to these problems is to create more room on aircraft to transport the storage tanks. The downside to this possibility is that it would require removing passenger seats and reduce revenue. Another solution is for airports to source their hydrogen fuel from nearby water sources. Just as ZeroAvia has led the industry in reducing carbon emissions, it will continue to study and resolve these challenges to make hydrogen fuel a reality. About ZeroAvia Val Miftakhov
, a licensed pilot, launched ZeroAvia
four years ago with the goal of creating zero carbon emissions for aircraft by 2050. The company is also developing aircraft that create substantially less noise than traditional aircraft. World governments and the public have started demanding more sustainable solutions over the past several years. ZeroAvia stepped up with responsible environmental stewardship.
Hydrogen-electric fuel is already a $100-billion industry, and Miftakhov predicts demand for 100,000 new hydrogen-powered aircraft over the next decade. The company has enjoyed early success with a 50 percent reduction in total trip costs and a 75 percent reduction in maintenance and fuel costs. Miftakhov feels confident that a larger portion of the aviation industry can achieve these savings levels by partnering with ZeroAvia to reduce carbon emissions.
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