American Airlines Investment in ZeroAvia Further Validates Hydrogen Fuel Initiatives
American Airlines recently announcement that it invests in the world’s leading developer of hydrogen electric motors, ZeroAvia, now the largest airline with a financial stake in the company. In addition to the investment, American will have the option to order up to 100 engines from ZeroAvia’s hydrogen electric powertrain development program. These engines are intended to power regional jet aircraft without emissions, and with them the potential to play a key role in the future of hydrogen and sustainable aviation.
With support from American, ZeroAvia is now to advance with test flights of its 600 kW ZA600 hydrogen-electric powertrain, with the aim of starting commercial hydrogen-powered operations for 19-seat aircraft by 2024.
Obtaining $35 million in investments from United Airlines and Alaska Group late 2021, ZeroAvia’s partnership with American Airlines is a welcome addition to its Series B closeout total more than $150 million in foreign investment.
“The support of the world’s largest airline is a strong indication of the progress we are making in developing hydrogen-electric, zero-emission flight. We are focused on providing sustainable travel and are thrilled that American, a visionary industry leader, sees ZeroAvia as part of the future of aviation,” wrote Val MiftakhovFounder and CEO of ZeroAvia.
Not only is hydrogen energy a real fuel source for aviation, but it is cleaner, lighter and safer for airplanes. It is the most abundant element in the universe, and in liquid form contains approximately 2.5 times more energy per kilogram than the current standard for jet fuel, kerosene. Also, since the fuel contains no carbon to begin with, hydrogen only produces water vapor as a by-product, and upon combustion would produce up to 90% less nitrogen oxides.
“Hydrogen powered by electric motors has better energy density than equivalent battery-powered aircraft, and is inherently safer than conventional aircraft. Hydrogen is a lighter fuel source than air, which means it dissipates very quickly, and compared to fossil fuels, it is certainly less explosive,” said Joe MassaquoiCFO of a hydrogen air cargo company H2 mower.
Industry leaders are “optimistic” about the prospect of achieving hydrogen-powered air travel by 2035, a target set by the WEF. Targeting the True Zero initiative. ZeroAvia, a key player in this initiative and a member of the 40-company coalition, has honed its research into lightweight fuel cell systems and envisions using its technology to support the goal of hydrogen fuel cells for “mid-range flights”. and hydrogen combustion engines for “long haul flights”.
“We support Target True Zero’s findings that technology like ours will enable aircraft with a range of up to 2,000 km by 2030 (London to Athens) and 4,000 km by 2035. (from New York to San Francisco), and our technology development will help make that happen. These will be key achievements in the pursuit of net zero,” Miftakhov wrote for the WEF.
While we continue to see great interest and investment from major US airlines, there is still not much to show of the growing flow of capital. Aviation and avionics industry engineers are still in the testing phase of designing hydrogen-compatible air travel. Most of the exploitable use cases for hydrogen fuel in the aviation industry come from small-scale companies, with companies such as Honeywell continue to deploy hydrogen fuel cells to accomplish complex drone missions.
In comparison, other innovators like the Californian company H2Clipper continue to develop larger-scale hydrogen-powered aviation alternatives with a focus on logistics use cases.
“At H2 Clipper, we certainly recognize the huge demand for hydrogen as a fuel source and have made strides to support an aerial ship that carries green hydrogen, efficiently utilizing green hydrogen both as fuel source and as a payload,” Massaquoi said.
Much of H2 Clipper’s structural support and motivation comes from a climate of green energy development in California. Leading nations in hydrogen energy adoption, California objective is to put 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025. Clean Transportation Program, the California Energy Commission supports the adoption and expansion of the hydrogen fueling station network throughout the state. In a bid to improve air quality and meet their climate change goals, they saw transportation emissions drop by 3.5 million metric tons between .
“In California, there are over 6,000 hydrogen cars on the road today, and you can see over 50,000 hydrogen forklifts across the country,” Massaquoi said.
In a nutshell, hydrogen is an essential part of the net zero game plan given that it produces zero carbon emissions. American Airlines sees it as such, integrating hydrogen fuel into its 2035 GHG emission reduction targets and its broader plan to achieve net zero GHG emissions by 2050.
“It uses renewable resources in its production,” Massaquoi said. “From an industry perspective, we are encouraged by the larger and broader universe of participants in the hydrogen ecosystem.”
It is likely that hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen combustion technology will prove necessary to validate hydrogen as the next fuel standard for aviation. Supplier of aerospace and multi-technology components GKN Aerospacein partnership with the engine systems company ESF and zero-emissions transition company Fabrummake tangible steps to prove the functionality of liquid hydrogen, creating facilities for aviation innovators to test their designs and technology.
However, detailed research by McKinsey and WEF found that power-to-liquid (PtL) fuel production, which includes liquid hydrogen fuel production, is an area requiring more active investment. Creating PtL fuel is a complex process, with key steps requiring massive capital investments, including “the creation of renewable electricity and hydrogen, carbon capture, and fuel synthesis.”
As companies prove the capabilities of sustainable aviation fuel, achieving a goal of developing a functioning PtL supply chain would form the foundation for the future use of SAFs at scale, as explained in the McKinsey’s research, this would “dramatically diversify and expand SAF’s offering to meet future demand.
If airlines can continue to support this technology beyond just regional jets and invest enough in R&D to adapt engine functionality to commercial flights, the world will be one step closer to normalizing green hydrogen power in large scale.
Article co-authored by Abi Wolf and Matt Franje.