ZeroAvia has raised $115 million from United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, British Airways and Amazon with a promise to fly a passenger jet in the zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell sector within the next year. Now, the startup has set itself a goal to fly a little further: to build a hybrid airplane.
The new test aircraft, which is being built in California, is a 19-seat Dornier 228 that will feature a “hybrid engine configuration that combines both the company’s hydro-electric powertrain and a conventional engine”. According to a recent source Press Release.
ZeroAvia declined to tell TechCrunch why it changed its plans. A hybrid system could reassure regulators that Dornier can safely fly for tests, while the company continues to develop the world’s largest aviation hydrogen fuel cells.
The decision to build a hybrid aircraft follows a previously unreported decision statement from the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) on the April 2021 crash of the moonshot project that caught investors’ attention: a small battery and fuel cell powered prototype closer to Cranfield Airport.
The AAIB found that the crash near Cranfield Airport occurred after the five-seat Piper Malibu lost power when its battery was switched off, leaving the electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The subsequent forced landing left the plane severely damaged, although the pilot and its passengers escaped injuries.
TechCrunch revealed last year that the Piper Malibu relies heavily on batteries, using them during what ZeroAvia calls Malibu’s historic maiden flight in September 2020. The company’s only other flying prototype, a Piper Malibu, was destroyed. damaged during the installation of a hydrogen fuel tank at ZeroAvia, USA. base in Hollister, California in 2019 and has not flown since.
Following the crash at Cranfield, ZeroAvia moved its UK operations to Kemble Airport in Gloucestershire, which provided the financial impetus for the startup. ZeroAvia currently has two Dornier 228 aircraft, one in Kemble and one in Hollister. ZeroAvia previously said it would power the Dorniers using a newly developed 600kW hydrogen fuel cell.
ZeroAvia has received more than £14 million ($17 million) in funding from the UK government to build its planes there, as part of its “Jet Zero” net carbon aviation pledge by 2050.
The crash of its smaller prototype ended any chance for ZeroAvia to fulfill its commitment to fly that particular plane 300 miles on hydrogen. ZeroAvia received £1.6 million ($2.02 million) to achieve that goal.
By ZeroAvia latest project worth £8.3m in the UK, HyFlyer II, promises to operate a similar 300-mile carbon-free flight next February, powered by a 600kW fuel cell. It remains unclear whether Kemble Dornier is a hybrid.
ZeroAvia declined to answer questions about details of its progress, and spokeswoman Sarah Malpeli told TechCrunch that the company could not comment on the Cranfield crash until the AAIB’s final report was released at the end of the day. this summer.
The UK’s funding body, the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), released this statement: “ATI does not comment on the progress of live projects due to commercial confidentiality. We continue to work closely with ZeroAvia and look forward to HyFlyer and HyFlyer II’s contribution to the understanding and development of zero-carbon aircraft technologies in the UK. ”
Building a hybrid aircraft with conventional engines is a big change for the company, as ZeroAvia has always referred to its systems as no emission. Most recently last week, ZeroAvia CEO Val Miftakhov told a US House of Representatives Transportation subcommittee that even battery-powered hybrid powertrains are “too incremental.”
However, other companies, including Airbusis pursuing hybrid solutions for the hydrogen aviation industry.
There are many challenges to developing an all-hydrogen aircraft, from storing fuel, to cooling the system so it doesn’t overheat in flight. The most advanced hydrogen fuel cell aircraft to date could be H2Fly. The four-seat test aircraft completed a 124-kilometer flight last month between Stuttgart and Friedrichshafen, at an altitude of more than 7,300 feet.
Earlier this year, ZeroAvia release a video shows a “complete propulsion system” mounted on a “HyperTruck” ground vehicle and powered by a propeller. That configuration has two fuel cells and several batteries, and is likely about a third the size of the system needed for Dornier to take off. It does not include a conventional motor.
The company’s ultimate aim is to build a fuel cell capable of generating between 2,000 and 5,000kW (2 to 5MW).
Earlier this year, ZeroAvia received a $350,000 in economic development funding from Washington State to start work here on Alaska Airlines’ 76-seat De Havilland Dash-8 Q400.
Even so, the company was not always successful in attracting money from the public. ZeroAvia is suing the US government, in a previously unreported lawsuit filed in the US court of Federal Claims. Most of the files in the case are sealed, but it appears to be related to ZeroAvia’s failed bid for a federal contract.
Fuel cell future
Immediately after the crash, ZeroAvia’s path still seemed to focus solely on fuel cells.
For example, the company has spent more than 23 million Swedish kroner (about $2.2 million) on fuel cells since the accident, according to a press release from PowerCell Sweden AB, the fuel cell maker. used in the plane that crashed. This could equate to between 10 and 13 100kW fuel cells. ZeroAvia is also evaluate a fuel cell from the New York-based startup Hyzon.
ZeroAvia does not have a hydrogen-powered aircraft. However, the company continues to build new commercial partnerships and promises even more ambitious projects and timelines.
Miftakhov, who is at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, posted a blog claiming the UK-based Dornier plane is “preparing to fly” and will enter service in 2024 .
ZeroAvia announced this week that the larger Dash will fly in 2026 and announced new plans to convert a regional jet to hydrogen fuel cell operation “as early as the late 2020s”.