Zero Emission Aviation Taking Off

September 2, 2020

More and more companies jostling in the Electric flight space. I’ve reported on a few of them before.


By 2035 there will be zero-emission commercial flights across the Atlantic, with aeroplanes powered by electricity. This isn’t some pipe dream but, according to Bedfordshire-based technology company ZeroAvia, a realistic proposition. Julian Renz, the man in charge of the company’s special projects, explains how it will work…

Zero-emission transatlantic flights? Isn’t that the Holy Grail of aviation? Is it possible?
ZeroAvia says its planes will be powered by electricity from hydrogen fuel cells. A chemical reaction in these cells combines hydrogen (stored in tanks aboard the aircraft) with oxygen from the air. This creates electricity, which is used to power the aircraft, and water as a waste product: no fossil fuels in sight. “This will probably be the most disruptive technology in aviation since the founding of the industry,” Renz says. “People are talking about the third revolution in aviation. The first was the invention of heavier-than-air flight. The second was transatlantic flight. The third will be electric.”

So far, electricity has powered only very short flights. The target date of 2035 gives them just 15 years to create the technology. Is that realistic?
Electricity from hydrogen fuel cells already exists in cars, buses, boats, submarines and motorcycles. Honda, Toyota and Hyundai are among the manufacturers to have released commercial vehicles. When it comes to aircraft, drones have been successfully tested, while Boeing has demonstrated manned flight using a hydrogen fuel cell and lithium-ion battery hybrid system. However, ZeroAvia has yet to demonstrate its hydrogen fuel cells in flight. So far, its test flights have seen manned Piper Malibu light aircraft flying from Cranfield Airport, in Bedfordshire, on lithium-ion batteries. The longest flight was for 30 minutes over a distance of 50 miles with a top speed of 230 knots. “The first hydrogen fuel cell-powered test flights will be taking place in September,” Renz adds.

Who is ZeroAvia’s test pilot?
His name is Andrew Dixon and it turns out he is also a stunt pilot in the movie industry. “He flew stunts in the James Bond films Spectre and Quantum Of Solace,” Renz says. “Frankly we didn’t know he had done James Bond movies when we started speaking to him. We only found out after the first day of flight testing, when we were having a beer.”

From a light aircraft to a transatlantic airliner? That’s quite a leap of technology… and faith.
ZeroAvia plans to reach its ultimate goal in increments. Soon after the light aircraft has successfully flown using hydrogen fuel cells, it will plan a test flight from the Orkney Islands to Edinburgh with a small aircraft. After that it plans to test ten- to 20-seat aircraft, aiming for legal certification by 2023. “You should be able to book a ticket on an airline by late 2023,” Renz says. “The routes we will deliver will be under 500 nautical miles, which will include regional routes such as Exeter to Newcastle or Bristol to Belfast.”

ZeroAvia says it plans to target many of the world’s most popular flight routes under 500 miles. But these will all feature aircraft with turboprop engines and propellers. For the much longer transatlantic routes it will need planes powered with turbofans. “There is absolutely no reason you couldn’t power 200-seat aircraft over longer distances with hydrogen, since turbofans are fundamentally the same as the turboprops we’re initially working on,” says Renz. “We think a demonstrated flight in a large aircraft is definitely possible by 2035. Up to 2023 we will be retrofitting existing planes, but in the future planes will be built from scratch to run on hydrogen fuel cells, especially as we move to 200-seat and longer-range aircraft.”

6 Responses to “Zero Emission Aviation Taking Off”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    2035? WOW!

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Whatever happened to zeppelin transport for oversized objects and/or hard-to-reach places?

    • John Oneill Says:

      Modern airliners have lift to drag ratios of about 20 to one.Staying up at the speeds needed for intercontinental travel is not a problem – getting the air out of your way is the important thing. A giant gasbag is just far too slow. For the same reason, I doubt that commercial transatlantic hydrogen planes will happen – hydrogen is just too bulky. Even liquid hydrogen, at 259 C below zero, has about four times the volume of jet fuel with the same energy content. Liquid hydrogen can be used for rockets, where the fuel cost is a minor part of the total, but even here, despite the weight penalty, Spacex has gone for methane, much cheaper and far more convenient. In an aircraft, you couldn’t carry hydrogen fuel in the wings, as it would be too difficult to keep refrigerated in a long, flat tank. Hydrogen compressed to 250 atmospheres is about a third the density of liquid hydrogen, needs a heavy, strong container, and still can’t go in the wings – any shape other than a cylinder would weigh too much.

  3. redskylite Says:

    “How airships could provide the future of green transport

    The Airlander 10 carries ten tonnes of freight or up to 90 passengers. It can take off and land almost anywhere flatish with a 600 meter expanse, or indeed on water, without the need for airports or buildings. “We can bring it much closer into cities. It could land on the Thames at Greenwich,” says Rod Sinclair, the company’s chairman.

    It cruises at 130 km/h using the vectored thrust of helicopter technology – hence the “hybrid” – but should be safer than a helicopter since it can fly on one of its four engines, uses ten times less fuel, and is an order of magnitude greener. “We’ll always beat them on price,” says Mr Sinclair, an ex-investment banker at Barclays.”

  4. Dream come true. I have been flying planes for decades and can’t shake off the responsibility I feel regarding the carbon emission or fossil fuel consumption. Can’t wait for greener options.

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