A six-seater battery-powered aircraft flew for the first time over the UK on Monday (22 June), becoming Europe’s largest e-plane in the process just as the aviation industry revealed that it wants the EU to invest big in the future of flight innovation.
US startup ZeroAvia’s milestone moment is the latest step in its quest to develop fuel cell technology for commercial aircraft, with the objective of using zero-emission hydrogen to power 200-seater planes for up to 5,500km by 2040.
The firm insists that “fundamental scientific breakthroughs” are actually not needed to achieve its lofty 2040 goal and aims to roll out 20-seater planes within three years. Aircraft with configurations of up to 100 seats could be in service by the end of the decade.
“We all want the aviation industry to come back after the pandemic on a firm footing to be able to move to a net-zero future, with a green recovery,” said ZeroAvia Founder and CEO Val Miftakhov.
“That will not be possible without realistic, commercial options for zero-emission flight, something we will bring to market as early as 2023.”
Monday’s test flight deployed batteries to drive the propeller engine but ZeroAvia says that hydrogen “has a much more promising energy-to-weight ratio, making it viable for commercial operations at a much larger scale and in a shorter time frame.”
Airbus has recently abandoned plans to develop a regional aircraft powered by an electric-hybrid system, due to pressure exerted by the virus outbreak. The aerospace giant could yet resurrect the project after the French government unveiled a €15 billion bailout for the sector, including a fund dedicated to testing low- and zero-emission aircraft.
ZeroAvia’s planned test flights later in the summer are expected to use a hydrogen-electric powertrain, which the company also insists will be cheaper to run over the course of the aircraft’s lifetime due to lower operating costs.
The company’s vision is for renewable energy such as wind and solar to be used to power a hydrogen electrolyser – the only byproduct of which is water – and for the resulting fuel to be used to drive an electric motor attached to a propeller.
According to an EU-backed study published on Monday, hydrogen has massive potential in aviation but “significant research and development, investments, and accompanying regulation” are needed to make a success of it.
The research identifies regional, short-haul and medium-haul flights as ideal candidates but concludes that long-haul – typically journeys of 5,000km and more – would need significant and costly plane redesigns, as fuel tanks would necessitate longer fuselages.
But the study is also bullish about the technology’s viability, predicting that it could become a staple of the industry within 15 years if the right decisions are made.
Safety and regulatory hurdle will be a given, although Europe’s regulator, EASA, recently certified a two-seater electric-battery plane for flight worldwide in what was hailed as a landmark moment.
Green for green planes
Europe’s major airlines and aerospace firms called on government ministers and the EU institutions on Wednesday (24 June) to prioritise research and development for their sector as part of the bloc’s coronavirus recovery plans.
According to their open letter, the industry wants sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) via “a dedicated and stable set of policy measures and public investment plans”. Supply and demand is currently low, which makes the costs involved prohibitive.
They also call for more funding for research programmes like Civil Aviation Research & Innovation from Horizon Europe and the next long-term budget, citing hydrogen’s potential to help the EU achieve its collective target of climate-neutrality by 2050.
Earlier this month, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury suggested that Europe should set up a ‘cash for clunkers’ style fleet renewal scheme but for aircraft, which would help shore up the aerospace sector and potentially increase the uptake of more efficient planes.
That point is reiterated in the open letter, which insists that new planes can be up to 25% cleaner and public money should be used as a green incentive for aircraft operators to revamp their fleets.
The letter also calls for more money to be invested in air traffic management measures, which the industry has in the past said could reduce emissions in Europe by 10% if outdated flight paths were to be reorganised.
EU leaders are still discussing the proposed €750 billion recovery fund of grants and loans, although heads of state and government have come to an understanding on the “architecture” of the plan, even if the scope and conditionality of the money are still divisive.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]