ZeroAvia has raised $115 million from United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, British Airways and Amazon for a promise to fly a zero-emissions regional passenger jet powered by hydrogen fuel cells as early as next year. Now the startup has set itself a slightly less ambitious goal: building a hybrid aircraft.
That new experimental aircraft, under construction in California, is a 19-seat Dornier 228 that will have “a hybrid engine configuration that includes both the company’s hydrogen-electric powertrain and a conventional engine,” according to a recent study press release.
ZeroAvia declined to tell TechCrunch why it changed plans. A hybrid system could reassure regulators that the Dornier can safely fly for testing while the company continues to develop the world’s largest aerospace hydrogen fuel cell.
The decision to build a hybrid aircraft follows a previously unreported one expression from the UK’s Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) on the April 2021 crash of the Moonshot project that caught investors’ attention: a smaller fuel cell and battery powered prototype near Cranfield Airport.
The AAIB determined the crash occurred near Cranfield Airport after the five-seat Piper Malibu lost power when the battery shut down and the electric motors were powered by the hydrogen fuel cell. The subsequent emergency landing severely damaged the aircraft, although the pilot and passenger were uninjured.
TechCrunch revealed last year that the Piper Malibu relied heavily on batteries and used them throughout what ZeroAvia called the Malibu’s historic first flight in September 2020. The company’s only other flying prototype, another Piper Malibu, was damaged during the installation of a hydrogen tank at ZeroAvia’s US base in Hollister, California in 2019 and has not flown since.
After the Cranfield crash, ZeroAvia relocated its UK operations to Kemble Airport in Gloucestershire, which offered 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 over £14 million (US$17 million) in grants from the UK government to build its aircraft there as part of the flagship ‘Jet Zero’, a net zero-carbon aviation pledge by 2050.
The crash of its smaller prototype ended any chance for ZeroAvia to fulfill the commitment to fly this particular aircraft 300 miles on hydrogen. ZeroAvia was awarded £1.6 million (US$2.02 million) to meet this goal.
ZeroAvias latest £8.3million project in the UK, HyFlyer II promises to perform a similar 300-mile zero-carbon flight powered by the 600kW fuel cell by February next year. It is unclear whether the Kemble Dornier will also be a hybrid.
ZeroAvia declined to answer detailed questions about its progress, and spokeswoman Sarah Malpeli told TechCrunch that the company would not be able to comment on the Cranfield crash until the final AAIB report is released 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 for reasons of commercial confidentiality. We continue to work closely with ZeroAvia and look forward to the HyFlyer and HyFlyer II contributing to the UK’s understanding and development of zero-carbon aircraft technologies.”
Building a hybrid aircraft with a conventional engine is a major change for the company, as ZeroAvia has always called its systems zero emission. Just last week, ZeroAvia’s CEO Val Miftakhov told a US House Transportation Subcommittee that even a hybrid drive with batteries is “too incremental”.
However, other companies, including airbusare pursuing hybrid solutions for hydrogen aviation.
When designing an all-hydrogen aircraft, there are many challenges ranging from storing the fuel to cooling the system so it doesn’t overheat during flight. The most advanced hydrogen fuel cell aircraft to date is probably this H2Fly. This four-seat test aircraft completed a 124-kilometer flight between Stuttgart and Friedrichshafen at an altitude of over 7,300 feet last month.
Earlier this year ZeroAvia posted a video shows a “complete propulsion system” mounted on a “HyperTruck” ground vehicle and driving a propeller. This configuration had two fuel cells and a bank of batteries and is probably about a third the size of the system required to launch the Dornier. It did not include a conventional engine.
The company’s ultimate goal is to build a fuel cell capable of generating between 2,000 and 5,000 kW (2 to 5 MW).
Earlier this year, ZeroAvia received one $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 been successful in landing public funds. ZeroAvia is suing the US government in a previously undisclosed case filed in the US Federal Claims Court. Most of the files in the case are sealed, but it appears to be a failed bid by ZeroAvia for a federal contract.
Future of the fuel cell
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, ZeroAvia’s path still appeared to be strictly fuel cell-centric.
For example, according to press releases from PowerCell Sweden AB, the maker of the fuel cell used in the crashed plane, the company has spent over 23 million Swedish kronor (about $2.2 million) on fuel cells since the accident. This probably equates to between 10 and 13 100kW fuel cells. ZeroAvia is too Evaluation of a fuel cell from the New York start-up Hyzon.
ZeroAvia does not have an operational aircraft that runs on hydrogen. However, the company continues to forge new commercial partnerships, promising increasingly ambitious projects and timelines.
Miftakhov, who is at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, published a blog claiming the UK-based Dornier aircraft is “close to flying” and will enter service in 2024.
ZeroAvia this week claimed the larger Dash would fly by 2026, and announced new plans “As early as the end of the 2020s” to convert a regional jet to hydrogen fuel cell operation.
Hydrogen startup ZeroAvia has a zero-emission vision, but its next plane is a hybrid – TechCrunch Source link Hydrogen startup ZeroAvia has a zero-emission vision, but its next plane is a hybrid – TechCrunch