Fuel cell airplane maker ZeroAvia taking on mid-range commercial air travel

Hydrogen for fuel cell aircraft can be produced locally from renewable energy. That message is buried in today’s press release from ZeroAvia, a new company that emerged from stealth mode to demonstrate a fuel cell drive train for medium sized airplanes. Pictured here is ZeroAvia’s test mule, a Piper M-Class 6-passenger airplane. The drive train is slated to be made available in 2022 to airplane manufacturers.

There are battery electric airplanes which have been demonstrated. Small trainer airplanes are on sale, I believe. This airplane is a little larger than those and will obviously fit into a different niche.

ZeroAvia’s press release makes the case that the most practical way to enable zero emission aircraft is with fuel cells. The target airplane will handle 300-500 miles of flying range, with 20 passengers. It is envisioned to be an economically feasible solution for using smaller local airports for point-to-point travel – like an air taxi.

It’s about energy storage to weight ratios. For fuel cells to make sense in this application, the energy stored with hydrogen has to be greater than can be stored in a battery pack of the same size and weight. Airplanes are strict about energy capacity and weight. Therefore, embedded in ZeroAvia’s is the belief that battery packs will not provide a high enough energy density any time soon for airplanes.

Evade blocked charging stations with one of these handy J1772 extension cords.

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ZeroAvia drive train closeup – Source: ZeroAvia

Since the drive train is ZeroAvia’s focus, let’s zoom in on the picture they supplied and analyze what’s here.

First – the propellor is in motion, meaning this airplane is operational at least to the degree of taxiing around an airport. The press release says they’ve conducted test flights.

It looks like immediately behind the propellor is an electric motor, with no gearing between the motor and the propellor shaft. Immediately behind that is what looks like an inverter (motor controller) with cables connecting it with the motor. I’m wondering about the color choices in the wiring harness, since I understood it is required to use orange cables for high voltage wires so that technicians know which cable is dangerous.

Behind that is a blue box. Might that be the fuel cell stack?

Besides the motor and the inverter, there are three or four major components that must exist:

  • Hydrogen storage tanks — most likely in the wings or whereever the gas tank is in this airplane
  • Fuel cell stack
  • Overall system control electronics, as well as avionics in the cockpit
  • Small battery pack to buffer energy from fuel cell for driving the motor

The area immediately behind the engine compartment could hold some of those items. It’s not clear from the picture where all those items are located.

ZeroAvia describes their addressable market as:

500-mile flights to serve the short-haul and commuter air travel markets, which make up nearly half the commercial flights worldwide. … smaller zero-emission aircraft will be able to achieve similar per-seat economics as today’s large regional jets, allowing economical use of smaller local airports for point-to-point travel with virtually no security lines or delays, and a much more pleasant overall flying experience.

ZeroAvia

Additionally they’re looking to target air cargo, air taxi, and agriculture use cases. Over time they may target other types of air craft.

ZeroAvia intends a rather different business model, namely:

ZeroAvia will lease the drivetrain to customers and provide fuel and maintenance as part of its power-by-the-hour model, in which customers pay only for the hours that they use the drivetrain. This model emulates engine leasing options already popular in the aviation market.

ZeroAvia

With this sort of airplane air travel could be handled differently than today. Instead of flying in a big jet to a regional airport, we could fly to a local airport closer to the destination.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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