• The startup ZeroAvia is developing technology to power airplanes with hydrogen fuel cells. 
  • It recently won backing from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Amazon, and Shell.
  • Major challenges lie in the path to hydrogen-powered flight. ZeroAvia says it’s eating away at them.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When hydrogen gas inside the Hindenburg exploded in 1937, the era of airship travel came to an end.

Now the very same gas is reentering the aviation industry. And this time it’s kicking off a new era — one of zero-carbon travel.

Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to power electric motors or combusted to drive an engine. Either way, the gas doesn’t generate carbon emissions if it’s made using renewable energy.

That’s why investors have been hunting for hydrogen startups to fund, with some of the biggest names landing on one that appears to be leading the race for hydrogen-fueled aviation: ZeroAvia. The startup, headquartered in Hollister, California, hopes to bring hydrogen power trains for commercial aircraft to market by 2023.

Val Miftakhov ZeroAvia

ZeroAvia founder and CEO Val Miftakhov.

ZeroAvia


Earlier this month, ZeroAvia won backing from Amazon, Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Shell. It’s also one of Insider’s 46 climate-tech startups to watch in 2021.

Flight technology has moved on since the 1930s, so there’s no real risk of explosion anymore. Still, major challenges lie ahead for ZeroAvia and its rivals, including the aircraft giant Airbus. For example, as the lightest element in the universe, hydrogen is challenging to transport and store.

But the reward for succeeding is sure to be massive, and the technology could disrupt an industry worth $686 billion.

“The risk is high and the capital intensity is high — but you can transform the industry,” Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia’s founder and CEO, told Insider.

Hydrogen is the airplane fuel to beat

Miftakhov has a personal stake in cleaning up the aviation industry: A pilot himself, he often flies his helicopter from his home in the Bay Area to the company’s office in Hollister.  

While he loves to fly, his last company, eMotorWerks, focused on ground transportation — specifically, on smart charging for electric cars.

Electric vehicles are an elegant way to cut emissions from road travel, he said. And as a frequent flyer, he had for years wanted to find a similar solution for air travel.

After he sold eMotorWerks to the Italian energy giant Enel in 2017, Miftakhov saw his shot. Airlines were announcing carbon-reduction targets. Tesla had proved the market value of green transportation. He just needed to figure out how to build zero-carbon planes.

There are a few ways to cut emissions from an airplane. You can use lithium-ion batteries, like in electric cars do. You can use fuels made from plants, recycled carbon, or algae.

Or you can use hydrogen.

If you’re working with big planes, batteries are out, Miftakhov said. They’re simply too heavy. At the scale Miftakhov is targeting — a 20-seat aircraft that can go 500 miles on one fill — “they would weigh significantly more than the aircraft,” he said. (Some experts say batteries are suitable for small fixed-wing planes.) 

Biofuels and synthetic fuels, on the other hand, are just “not as efficient” and come with high maintenance costs, Miftakhov added.

That leaves hydrogen. 

“Among the potential alternative fuels for aircraft, hydrogen stand[s] out and seems to be the most promising clean fuel, and it is likely to be the solution for decarbonizing the aviation industry,” said Ahmad Baroutaji, a researcher at the University of Wolverhampton who has investigated the role of hydrogen in aviation.

One advantage of hydrogen planes is that unlike those powered by batteries, they don’t require charging, Baroutaji added. More importantly, hydrogen gas can be generated using machines called electrolyzers powered by renewable energy, which makes the fuel source have zero emissions. 

Shell Hydrogen charging point 2019

Shell is among the largest backers of hydrogen technology.

Miquel Gonzalez/Shell


VCs jump on board

Since Miftakhov sold his EV company, hydrogen has attracted a huge spotlight in the transition to a lower-carbon economy. Experts told Insider 2021 could be hydrogen’s biggest year yet.

Venture capitalists are on the hunt for hydrogen startups to fund, even though the venture model tends to eschew projects with large up-front costs.

That has served ZeroAvia well.

In December, Amazon joined Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Fund and Shell’s venture arm in boosting ZeroAvia with $21 million in cash, bringing the startup’s total funding to nearly $50 million. The Ecosystem Integrity Fund led the round with Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Meanwhile, major airlines want a bite, too. British Airways announced a formal partnership with ZeroAvia last year, and about 15 other airlines have sent Miftakhov’s firm a letter of intent, he said.

Miftakhov said his pitch to investors was all about scalability and proof. ZeroAvia has the only approach that can scale to large aircraft, and the firm has already shown its technology works at a small scale, he said. In September, ZeroAvia said it completed the first flight of a commercial-grade aircraft powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

High-risk tech is also easier to swallow when the need is great: Amazon has pledged to reduce its emissions to zero by 2040, most of which come from shipping its products. And airlines are making similar commitments.

ZeroAvia powertrain

ZeroAvia’s power train.

ZeroAvia


Turbulence ahead

But hydrogen technology has a long way to go. The most basic issue is that most of the gas isn’t clean — it’s produced using fossil fuels, which defeats the purpose of swapping it out for jet fuel.

Once you have green hydrogen, there’s the challenge of getting it to airports and storing it there. Hydrogen is extremely light, so it needs to be highly pressurized.

“I think the biggest challenge is with fueling infrastructure,” Kevin Harrison, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Lab, told Insider last year.

Miftakhov said ZeroAvia, which is focused on developing power trains, would play an active role in building out fueling infrastructure, likely with the help of Shell. Shell is among the top suppliers of aviation fuel, and it’s betting big on hydrogen gas as it stares down the energy transition.

There are also challenges to putting fuel cells on board a plane, Baroutaji said. The main one is the weight.

“In order to power a very large aircraft, you have to put a very heavy fuel cell on the aircraft,” he said. “They need to find the solution for the weight issue — that will take them some time.” 

In response, Miftakhov said ZeroAvia was focused on weight reduction and had an approach that would allow the company to fly a 20-seat aircraft — and, eventually, a plane that carries up to 80 passengers. ZeroAvia will initially target the market for short-haul flights across Asia and the Caribbean, Miftakhov told TechCrunch

For 2030, Miftakhov has even bigger plans: “We will have single-aisle jets, 100-seat category,” he said. “That’s really the bread and butter of the markets. Technology should be ready by then to get these things in the air.”