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 August 04, 2020
Can airplanes go green?

 When Val Miftakhov touched down at Cranfield Airport in England last month, his Piper Malibu Mirage six-seater became the first commercial-grade, zero-emission airplane to fly in Europe. That test flight was just 21 miles. But Miftakhov, the chief executive of a Silicon Valley start-up called ZeroAvia, envisions a future of passenger planes that fly on hydrogen-powered electricity, not jet fuel.

Air travel accounts for about 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions --- much less than produced by cars. Despite a temporary dip due to the coronavirus, demand for air travel has been dramatically growing and planes are projected to produce as much as 25 percent of global carbon emissions by 2050.

Miftakhov's Piper was powered by batteries, but his company is working on integrating a hydrogen fuel cell for aviation. He conceived of ZeroAvia only a few years ago, but his aspirations for designing a hydrogen-powered plane date to childhood. A pilot with a doctorate in physics, he's flown all of the company's early prototypes.

ZeroAvia is part of the HyFlyer project, a U.K. government-sponsored initiative aiming to decarbonize medium-range small-passenger aircraft. The project's final milestone will be a 300-mile test flight from Scotland's Orkney Islands later this year. In this Q&A, which has been edited for brevity and clarity, Miftakhov spoke about achieving zero-emission flight and how government can support new sustainable technologies.

How does hydrogen power work, and are there risks associated with hydrogen power compared to traditional fuel?

Think about the hydrogen tanks plus fuel cell system as a really good battery. You charge it with hydrogen, so you put gas or liquid hydrogen into your tank, but the output of that in the aircraft is electricity. That electricity then is used by the electric motors to drive the propellers. . ... We're already five times better on energy density than the best battery out there, and we can further improve it by a factor of three or four by moving from compressed gas storage hydrogen to liquid hydrogen.

To your point on safety, compressed gas has been used in now maybe over 50,000 ground transportation vehicles worldwide. Most of those vehicles are actually in warehouses --- material handling equipment, trucks that move around in Amazon warehouses or forklifts --- and a lot of them are powered by hydrogen fuel cells, because it's a high-density fuel, so you don't have to recharge so often. The fueling takes just minutes, instead of hours recharging a battery, and there is zero emission. The only emission you have is ... water vapor, a little bit of humid air coming out of the system.

.... So, 50,000, give or take, of ground vehicles operating for a number of years, a lot of them with unqualified operators, regular people, and all of those run through all the safety procedures, crash testing and all that, so it's pretty safe fuel and a pretty safe way to store it.

Is hydrogen a cost-effective energy source? The process of generating some types of clean energy can consume large amounts of fossil fuels. Is that the case
here?


Our plan is renewably powered hydrogen-electric aviation. So renewable power ... goes into the electrolysis systems, which is how you basically split water ... using electricity, and that's how you get hydrogen. If your electricity comes from a zero-emissions source, like solar, for example, you have ... what's called "green hydrogen," and then you use that to power your aircraft. ... Solar power has reduced in price dramatically over the last three, five years by factors, not percent, factors. And electrolysis equipment has reduced in price quite dramatically. ... The key for this fuel, for hydrogen, is to produce it at the point of consumption.

What were the challenges you faced before you could reach the point of a test flight of a commercial-grade plane, as opposed to a two-seater?

When you make things bigger at high speed in the air, you burn more energy, and at some point there is no point in increasing the volume because ... what you added in terms of tank capacity just gets burned to carry the tank. It doesn't make any sense ... So to even take off, you have to manage it down, and that's part of the challenge.

The second part is building the support base of documentation and design materials for the certification authorities, for the regulators to convince them that it's safe to take up in the air ... The good thing is that the regulators, the FAA Federal Aviation Administration, (EASA) European Union Aviation Safety Agency ... they have some degree of experience with hydrogen fuel cells, not for primary propulsion, but there were some projects around utilizing hydrogen fuel cells as supplementary power in aircraft. .

Why will the upcoming Orkney Island flights be a significant milestone for ZeroAvia?

A big part of this is to show people what's possible, that it's real, so it's not just a science project --- the aircraft that I can see myself in is flying for 300 miles on a meaningful trip. Not a sightseeing tour of 20 miles, but an actual trip, like San Francisco to Los Angeles, or Boston to New York, any of those. I can see myself taking it, it's purely zero emission, it's a solar energy hydrogen plane. I go and I don't feel guilty. So that's what we want to demonstrate, and that, we know, will resonate with folks, the general public. Because everybody flies, and everybody knows that when they fly they burn fossil fuel, and more and more the public consciousness is there, in Europe sooner than in the U.S., but it will get here. California is already there, but the rest of the country will follow. So yeah, that's the exciting part.

What are the biggest roadblocks to bringing this to scale once the technology is in place?

The biggest uncertainty is the timeline of certification, which we're working on already. We've been engaging with the FAA for almost two years now and CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] for a year, so we're working on it. It's good to have government support from the top, like what we have in the U.K., which helps to not have unnecessary delays. ...

In terms of the business challenges, the infrastructure, fueling infrastructure, getting to the right cost of fuel, is probably the biggest variable I would say. ... So how we do this, where we install the production systems, are we going to be allowed to install them next to the airports? Because again, I don't want to transport fuel at all, I want to make it right there. So what's the permitting going to look like? Can we do it airside? Can we do it roadside? So the infrastructure side is super important and probably one of the biggest variables on the business side.

You have the U.K. government support --- what role should the government play in terms of helping private companies create zero-emissions air travel?

I would argue, for almost any disruptive technology transition for the good of the public, government has to play a big role. ... And we've seen how the government support at the right point ... for electric vehicle adoption helped immensely. ... A big part of this demonstration that we're doing is also showing the governments that hey, the technology is now getting ready, it's time to think about how we're going to deploy it, how we're going to support the deployment.

What's the best part of being at the helm of a company like this?

You really feel like you're making a difference at a disproportionately large scale. ... If you look at human impact on climate and all those things, aviation is not a huge contributor now ... but it is growing very fast while all the other segments of human activity, or most of the segments, are figuring out how to become less polluting ... You buy an aircraft today, a 737 Max when it becomes flyable again, it will be there for 30 years. So for 30 years, it will burn fossil fuel, more or less. And 30 years from now is 2050, when everybody wants to be net zero emissions. So that just doesn't compute. It's a problem that ... we're going to have on that time scale, and we're solving it, so that feels pretty good.