Meet Europe’s hydrogen trailblazers on a quest for zero-emission air travel

11 min read
Meet Europe’s hydrogen trailblazers on a quest for zero-emission air travel

Hydrogen-powered planes are, essentially, nothing new. The USSR flew the alternative fuel testbed Tupolev Tu-155 on hydrogen (and liquid natural gas) more than 35 years ago. 

However, challenges associated with the technology meant that it was basically moth-balled for commercial aircraft operations (rocket fuel is another matter) — until now. With the future of the planet in peril, almost everyone in air transport wants to talk about hydrogen propulsion.

From startups to multinational original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), much of  the industry is adamant that hydrogen can make zero-emission flights a reality.

It is just a matter of actually building the engines and the planes, ensuring adequate and economically viable fuel supply and infrastructure, scaling the technology — and, of course, convincing regulators that it is safe enough for commercial flights carrying passengers. 

“Most technologies required for a hydrogen-powered aircraft are emerging already in other industries and we have been working on this for some time already,” aerospace giant and hydrogen-propulsion proponent Airbus shared with TNW. “We’re not starting from scratch. The main challenge will be to certify them to airworthiness standards.”

Researchers have indeed been hard at work for years studying both direct combustion and the conversion of hydrogen into electrical energy through fuel cells. (Both are applicable to aviation and we will look more closely at them further on.)

The technology has, on the whole, been proven to work. But what will it take to make air travel “guilt-free” in earnest? 

Past few years have seen ‘dramatic’ validation of hydrogen aviation

Aviation accounts for about 2.5% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. However, its share is rising quickly. The industry is expanding at an alarming rate, with the global fleet of aircraft predicted to grow by 80% by 2041, compared to pre-pandemic 2019 levels. Furthermore, aviation has an impact on the climate that goes far beyond CO2. 

“Sustainability in aviation used to be buying random offsets in various places,” Val Miftakhov, founder of hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain developer ZeroAvia, tells TNW. “In the last five years, we have seen dramatic validation of hydrogen aviation.” 

Miftakhov is something of a veteran in zero-emission transportation, having founded eMotorWerks, developing SmartGrid-integrated EV charging technologies, in 2010. After selling the company in 2017, Miftakhov, a long-time pilot hailing from a family legacy of aerospace engineering, turned his attention to decarbonising one of the world’s most hard-to-abate sectors. 

Zero emissions from the UK to the Netherlands by 2025

ZeroAvia has one of the most ambitious timelines in the hydrogen aviation industry. The company intends to have a fuel-cell engine capable of powering a 19-seater aircraft for flights between the Netherlands and the UK commercially ready as soon as 2025. 

In January this year, ZeroAvia flew a Dornier 228 19-seater testbed, at the time the largest commercial aircraft powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, for the first time. (That title has since been — temporarily — nicked by US-based Universal Hydrogen and its 40-seat ATR 72 nicknamed ‘Lightning McClean’. ZeroAvia intends to steal it back with a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400.)

The testbed aircraft took off from Cotswold Airport in Gloucester, UK, and was powered by a conventional engine on the right wing, and ZeroAvia’s ZA600 600 kW hydrogen-electric engine on the left. 

ZeroAvia Dornier 228 at Cotswold's airport taking off