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As the climate crisis intensifies, pressure is mounting on the aviation industry to reduce emissions. Now, the industry has taken a step forward with the successful test flight of a hydrogen-electric engine that produces no carbon emissions.
ZeroAvia’s 19-seat Dornier 228 twin-engine aircraft completed a nearly 10-minute test flight in the UK on Thursday. Although 19 seats are small compared to conventional passenger planes, it is the largest hydrogen-electric plane to successfully fly.
The technology, which uses liquid hydrogen to power fuel cells, eliminates carbon emissions during flight.
It’s part of a race to decarbonise the aviation industry, which currently accounts for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions, although its total climate contribution is estimated to be higher due to other gases, water vapor and contrails it emits.
Hydrogen has been identified as a promising fuel solution for aircraft because it produces no greenhouse gases when burned. However, if hydrogen is not harnessed from renewable energy, the process of creating it relies on fossil fuels.
The Dornier 228 is powered by a full-size prototype hydrogen-electric powerplant with two fuel cell stacks on the left wing of the aircraft. Lithium-ion battery packs boosted in-flight support, while hydrogen tanks and fuel cell power generation systems were placed inside the cabin with the seats removed.
Half of the power came from fuel cells and half from battery packs, a company representative confirmed at a press conference after the flight.
Although not used in flight, the right wing carried a conventional engine for safety reasons.
Starting at Cotswold Airport, the aircraft completed taxi, takeoff, a full circuit circuit and landing on a hydrogen-electric engine. It reached a top speed of 120 knots or 139 miles per hour. “All systems performed as expected,” the company said in a press release.
For commercial flight, of course, the hydrogen tanks and fuel cell power generation systems will be placed on the outside of the aircraft. The company now aims to finalize the configuration and submit it for certification by the end of the year.
At a press conference, a company representative said there were “currently” no plans to install hydrogen-electric power units (the aircraft’s drivetrain, including fuel tanks and engine) on either wing, but added, “Anything is possible. and we learn.” The company has not yet confirmed the launch aircraft.
ZeroAvia’s flight is part of the UK government-backed HyFlyer II project, which aims to develop a 600kW powerplant to enable zero-emissions flight for 9-19-seat aircraft, targeting a range of 300 nautical miles. The flight was carried out under a full Part 21 flight permit with the UK Civil Aviation Authority.
The company has come a long way since September 2020, when it completed a hydrogen-electric flight of its six-seater Piper Malibu using a 250 kW hydrogen-electric unit. Since then, it has made more than 30 flights with the small engine.
Founder and CEO Val Miftakhov said at a press conference that the company, which already cooperates with seven aircraft manufacturers, has 1,500 pre-orders for various engine options. Up to 700 of them are of the engine size tested in the UK on Thursday. “We know the market is there for it, now it’s all about pushing it into the final design,” he said.
The company aims to serve commercial flights with this technology by 2025. It also aims to expand further over the next decade, bringing the technology to larger 90-seat planes, they said. By 2027, they aim to fly 700 miles on a 40-80-seat aircraft.
The latter is not a simple task.
Although hydrogen-powered aircraft have been in development since the mid-20th century, they have faced significant obstacles, mainly due to hydrogen’s low energy density compared to kerosene, meaning it takes up about four times as much space as jet fuel. availability and historically low cost.
The infrastructure required to produce and distribute hydrogen is also a challenge. At this year’s Airbus Summit, hosted by the plane maker, Airbus chief Guillaume Faury warned that it was a “huge concern” and could derail the company’s plans to introduce a hydrogen-powered plane by 2035.
In December, Airbus announced plans to test a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine on the A380 in 2026.
Days before Airbus’ announcement, Rolls-Royce and budget airline EasyJet said they had successfully converted a conventional jet engine to run on liquid hydrogen fuel – a world first they claimed.
Meanwhile, other companies are developing technology aimed at delivering electric planes. Miftakhov told CNN in 2020 that even compared to “the wildest predictions for battery technology,” hydrogen has the greatest potential for zero-emissions flight than any of its electric rivals.
Meanwhile, ZeroAvia’s Dornier 228 aircraft will conduct a series of test flights from Kemble in the UK’s Lake District before moving on to demonstration flights from other airports.
Miftakhov said in a statement: “This is an important moment not only for ZeroAvia, but for the aviation industry as a whole, as it shows that true zero-emission commercial flight is only a few years away.
“The first flight of our 19-seat aircraft shows how scalable our technology can be and highlights the rapid development of the zero-emission engine. This is just the beginning – we are building the future of sustainable, zero climate impact aviation.”
At a press conference, he called it a “momentous day not just for ZeroAvia or aviation, but for the world,” adding: “Aviation [contribution] “It’s getting bigger and bigger about climate change, and we really need solutions.”
According to the Air Transport Action Group, the booming industry accounts for 2.1% of man-made carbon emissions worldwide and 3.5% of global warming emissions.
“Today we witnessed a big step towards achieving this goal [of decarbonization]”, he said at the press conference.
“There’s still a way to go, but let’s celebrate the achievement.”