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Hydrogen Plane Startup Offers Zero-Emissions Solution for Airport Woes

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment
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The clean energy revolution means more than simply replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon alternatives. Clean technology can also provide extra benefits for companies in terms of productivity, comfort and convenience. A case in point is the hydrogen plane startup ZeroAvia. The company has just emerged from “stealth” mode to offer the world’s first commercial aircraft with a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain as its exclusive means of locomotion.

Extra benefits from hydrogen power

ZeroAvia’s business model is based on the premise that its hydrogen fuel cell powertrain will reduce the cost of flight on small, 10-20 seat aircraft, targeting short-haul journeys of up to 500 miles.

With the ability of the company's hydrogen plane to compete on cost for passengers against large conventional jets, ZeroAvia is anticipating that business travelers will be attracted by the opportunity to fly into smaller regional airports.

Ideally, the increased flexibility in choice of destinations will reduce the potential for delayed flights and long security lines that often bedevil larger airports.

How low can hydrogen go?

Hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars have been slow to take off, partly due to their relatively high cost and lack of a mature fuel distribution network for motorists.

Those two issues are not significant barriers for ZeroAvia’s hydrogen fuel cell aircraft, however.

The company is anticipating a per-flight cost savings of about 50 percent for its powertrain compared to conventional jet aircraft. Higher power train efficiency is one key difference. Lower fuel and maintenance costs will also factor in.

To help reduce costs farther, ZeroAvia has adopted a “power-by-the-hour” engine lease model commonly used in the aircraft industry, in which customers pay only for the hours that they use the powertrain. The cost of fuel and maintenance will be picked up by ZeroAvia as part of the lease.

As for fuel distribution, the logistics of establishing hydrogen fuel stations at airports are close at hand, if not already solved.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), for example, installed its first hydrogen fuel station for fuel cell vehicles in 2005.

And just last week the fuel cell company Plug Power delivered fuel cell cargo “tuggers” for the use of FedEx at Albany International Airport in upstate New York.

Support for hydrogen transportation at airports and elsewhere from the U.S. Department of Energy could also factor in.

The long road to the hydrogen airplane and zero-emission flight

Hydrogen fuel cells produce no airborne pollutants. The only emission is water, resulting from the interaction of hydrogen with oxygen in the fuel cell.

Still, the supply chain for hydrogen is front-loaded with pollutants and environmental impacts because the primary source for hydrogen today is natural gas.

Those supply chain issues should be taken into consideration by companies looking to clean up their travel-related emissions.

Fortunately, though, pathways for renewable sources are already beginning to emerge, and costs are already beginning to drop. ZeroAvia is in a good position to take advantage of those trends.

Top executives at the company have racked up considerable experience in zero- emission transport through previous work including at Tesla, Sonos and eMotorWerks, where ZeroAvia founder Valery Miftakov was also founder and CEO. In addition, the company’s go-to person for partnerships and special products lists the global hydrogen production leader Air Liquide on his resume.

Air Liquide has committed to decarbonizing hydrogen production for energy-related applications through its Blue Hydrogen initiative.

For its short-term goal, the company has pledged carbon-free production for at least 50 percent of hydrogen in the energy category by 2020 -- in other words, by next year. Biogas, water-splitting (using electricity sourced from renewables) and carbon recycling are the three main pathways identified by the company.

More travel, more low-carbon alternatives

Air Liquide’s timetable for renewable hydrogen improves the prospects for ZeroAvia to reduce its supply chain emissions.

ZeroAvia is looking at the year 2022 to introduce its new fuel cell aircraft to the market, and earlier this year Air Liquide announced it would ramp up carbon-free hydrogen production at an existing facility just across the border from the U.S. in Canada.

With business air travel projected to continue climbing at a rapid pace, hydrogen fuel cell technology has the potential to provide companies with another opportunity to cut costs and improve productivity while reducing carbon emissions all along the supply chain.

Image credit: ZeroAvia

 

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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