On January 19th, ZeroAvia announced the successful flight of the largest aircraft in the world powered by a hydrogen-electric engine. The flight took place at ZeroAvia’s R&D facility at Cotswold Airport, Gloucerstershire, UK. It took ten minutes to complete the take-off, flight and landing cycle. This is the largest ZeroAvia motor developed to power what has become the world’s largest fuel cell powered aircraft. Hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft will be one of the key players in meeting aviation emissions reduction requirements.
A mythical aircraft, the hydrogen-powered Dornier 228 was born in the 80s as a combustion twin-engine, although it is not the first time it has been adapted. It has been used to test hybrid electric motors, and ZeroAvia has managed to fly it with a ZA600 powertrain based on fuel cells.
The first flight of our 19-seat aircraft shows how scalable our technology is. It highlights the rapid progress of zero-emission propulsion.Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia, Founder & CEO
This motor has been located on the left wing of the aircraft as a replacement for the Honeywell TPE-331s it normally uses. On the right wing, it followed this Honeywell to operate in conjunction with the hydrogen engine, so there has been some support during the flight. The hydrogen powertrain comprises two fuel cells.
In the case of ZeroAvia, hydrogen is not used to fuel the engine. These hydrogen cells feed the fuel cells, which are responsible for transforming chemical energy into electrical energy, and it is precisely an electric motor that drives the propellers. This is relatively similar to what is being tried in the automotive world, with gasoline engines recharging electric motors, the latter driving the vehicle.
ZeroAvia has big plans for its hydrogen aircraft. The company is working on a 2-5 megawatt powertrain, intended for aircraft capable of carrying up to 90 passengers. They want to begin testing later this year, and schedule production. There are also less ambitious goals, such as the production of another 600 kW powertrain for flights with 9 to 19 seats. The latter project, the HyFlyer II, is supported by the UK Government’s ATI program.
Today’s flight is a big step forward for zero-emission air travel.Grant Shapps, UK’s Secretary of State for Business
In the case of these test flights, the fuel tanks and power generation systems were located inside the cabin itself. When it comes to producing this technology for commercial use, these components will be stored outside the airframe. ZeroAvia’s aim is to gradually increase both the capacity of the aircraft and the distance they can travel.
- 2025: First commercial flight of between 9 and 19 passengers, with a maximum distance of 555 km (regional flights).
- 2026: 40-80 passengers, range 1852 km.
- 2030: 200 seats, range 3,704 km.
- 2035: 200 seats, range 5,556 km.
- 2040: more than 200 seats, range 9260.
The hydrogen-electric powertrain on board was fueled using compressed gaseous hydrogen produced with an on-site electrolyzer. To enable hydrogen production on site, ZeroAvia and HyFlyer II partner the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) have delivered and operated the Hydrogen Airport Refueling Ecosystem (HARE), a microcosm of what infrastructure will look like in terms of green hydrogen production, storage, refueling and fuel cell powered flight. The system’s electrolyzer capacity was doubled earlier this year from its initial design for the latest project.
ZeroAvia’s HyFlyer II program to develop its ZA-600 hydrogen-electric engine and retrofit the Dornier 228 is being delivered in partnership with EMEC and Aeristech and is supported by the UK Government through the ATI Programme and the Department for Business, Energy Industrial Strategy, Innovate UK and Aerospace Technology Institute. Val Miftakhov is also a member of the UK Government’s Jet Zero Council.
ZeroAvia is not alone in these efforts. Rolls Royce is still in tests to develop hydrogen engines, based on the classic AE 2100 engine present, among others, in the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules. The company’s idea is not to use hydrogen fuel cells to drive electric motors, but to use a hydrogen-powered engine directly.