Hydrogen startup ZeroAvia has zero-emissions vision, but its next plane is a hybrid – TechCrunch

ZeroAvia has raised $115 million from United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, British Airways and Amazon with a promise to fly a regional passenger jet with zero-emission hydrogen fuel cells next year. Now the startup has set itself a slightly less lofty goal: to build a hybrid aircraft.

Under construction in California, this new experimental aircraft is a 19-seat Dornier 228 that will “have a hybrid engine configuration incorporating both the company’s hydrogen-electric powertrain and a conventional engine,” according to a recent press release.

ZeroAvia declined to tell TechCrunch why it had changed its plans. A hybrid system could assure regulators that the Dornier can fly safely for testing, while the company continues to develop the world’s largest hydrogen fuel cells for aviation.

The decision to build a hybrid aircraft follows a previously unreported statement by the UK’s Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) about the April 2021 crash of the moonshot project that caught the attention of investors: a smaller fuel cell prototype. and battery near Cranfield Airport.

The AAIB found that the crash near Cranfield airport happened after the five-seat Piper Malibu lost power when the battery shut down, leaving the electric motors powered by the hydrogen fuel cell. The ensuing emergency landing severely damaged the aircraft, although the pilot and passenger escaped injury.

TechCrunch revealed last year that the Piper Malibu relied heavily on batteries and used them during what ZeroAvia called a historic first flight of the Malibu in September 2020. The company’s only other flying prototype, another Piper Malibu, was damaged during installation. from a hydrogen fuel tank at ZeroAvia’s US base in Hollister, California in 2019, and has not flown since.

After the Cranfield crash, ZeroAvia moved its UK operation to Kemble Airport in Gloucestershire, giving the startup financial incentives. ZeroAvia now has two Dornier 228 aircraft, one at Kemble and one at Hollister. ZeroAvia previously said it would power the Dorniers with a newly developed 600 kW hydrogen fuel cell.

ZeroAvia has received more than £14 million ($17 million) in grants from the UK government to build its aircraft there, as part of a flagship “Jet Zero” net carbon-free aviation pledge by 2050.

The crash of its smaller prototype eliminated any chance ZeroAvia would honor a commitment to fly that particular plane 300 miles on hydrogen. ZeroAvia received £1.6 million ($2.02 million) to reach that goal.

ZeroAvia’s latest £8.3million UK project, HyFlyer II, promises to complete a comparable 300mile carbon-free flight by February next year, powered by the 600kW fuel cell. It is unclear whether the Kemble Dornier will now also become a hybrid.

ZeroAvia declined to answer detailed questions about its progress, and spokesperson Sarah Malpeli told TechCrunch that the company would not be able to comment on the Cranfield crash until the final AAIB report was published later this summer.

The UK funding agency, the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), issued this statement: “The ATI does not comment on the progress of live projects due to commercial confidentiality. We continue to work closely with ZeroAvia and look forward to the contribution of HyFlyer and HyFlyer II to the understanding and development of carbon-free aircraft technologies in the UK.”

Building a hybrid aircraft with a conventional engine is a big change for the company, as ZeroAvia has always called its systems zero emissions. Just last week, ZeroAvia CEO Val Miftakhov told a House Transportation subcommittee that even a battery-powered hybrid powertrain was “too incremental.”

However, other companies, including Airbus, are pursuing hybrid solutions for hydrogen aviation.

There are many challenges in developing a purely hydrogen-powered aircraft, ranging from storing fuel to cooling the system so that it does not overheat during flight. The most advanced hydrogen fuel cell aircraft to date is probably the H2Fly. This four-seat experimental aircraft completed a 124-kilometer flight between Stuttgart and Friedrichshafen last month, at an altitude of more than 7,300 feet.

Earlier this year, ZeroAvia released a video showing a “complete propulsion system” mounted on a “HyperTruck” ground vehicle driving a propeller. That configuration had two fuel cells and a number of batteries, and is probably about a third of the system needed to launch the Dornier. It did not contain a conventional engine.

The ultimate goal of the company is to build a fuel cell that can generate between 2,000 and 5,000 kW (2 to 5 MW).

Earlier this year, ZeroAvia received a $350,000 economic development grant from Washington State to work on a 76-seat Alaska Airlines De Havilland Dash-8 Q400 aircraft.

However, the company has not always succeeded in raising public money. ZeroAvia is suing the US government in a previously undeclared case filed in the US Federal Claims Court. Most of the files in the case are sealed, but it appears to be related to ZeroAvia’s failed bid for a federal contract.

Fuel cell future

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, ZeroAvia’s path still seemed to focus solely on fuel cells.

For example, since the accident, the company has spent more than 23 million Swedish kronor (about $2.2 million) on fuel cells, according to press releases from PowerCell Sweden AB, the manufacturer of the fuel cell used in the plane that crashed. This probably equates to 10 to 13 100 kW fuel cells. ZeroAvia is also evaluating a fuel cell from New York start-up Hyzon.

ZeroAvia does not have an operational hydrogen-powered aircraft. However, the company continues to forge new commercial partnerships and promises increasingly ambitious projects and timelines.

Miftakhov, who is attending the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, posted a blog claiming that Britain’s Dornier plane is “about to fly” and would be commissioned in 2024.

ZeroAvia claimed this week that the larger Dash would fly by 2026, announcing new plans to convert a regional plane to hydrogen fuel cells “as early as the late 2020s”.

This post Hydrogen startup ZeroAvia has zero-emissions vision, but its next plane is a hybrid – TechCrunch was original published at “https://techcrunch.com/2022/05/28/hydrogen-startup-zeroavia-has-a-zero-emission-vision-but-its-next-plane-is-a-hybrid/”

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