By Bryan Corliss
May 2, 2023 © Leeham News – Two-and-a-half years ago, a hydrogen-powered regional aircraft for Alaska Airlines was a caffeine-fueled brainstorm, the airline’s head of development said.
Two-and-a-half years from today, the flight of this kind of plane may be close to becoming reality.
That’s how fast the technology is evolving, said Pasha Saleh, who manages Alaska Air Group’s Star Ventures investment fund.
The fund is one of the investors in ZeroAvia’s effort to develop a hydrogen-electric turboprop motor strong enough to power regional aircraft. On Monday, ZeroAvia and Alaska unveiled the de Havilland Dash 8 Q400 that will be the testbed for the project.
VIPs touted the Alaska-ZeroAvia partnership for building the “world’s largest hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft.”
The goal is to have small aircraft with hydrogen-electric motors flying as soon as two years from now, said ZeroAvia CEO Valery Miftakov. “It’s quite aggressive targets that we have, but it can work.”
Alaska Airlines and hydrogen-power start-up ZeroAvia on Monday announced their partnership in developing a zero-emission airliner.
ZeroAvia will retrofit a retired 76-seat Q400 – formerly flown by Alaska’s regional subsidiary Horizon Airlines – with electric motors driven by hydrogen fuel cells.
The donation was announced at ZeroAvia’s research and development site at Paine Field. ZeroAvia also demonstrated its new 1.8 megawatt “MegaCore,” a prototype electric motor, which currently is mounted on a 15-ton truck parked next to a Paine Field taxiway. The engine’s soft murmur was drowned out by a business jet that took off during the demonstration.
ZeroAvia says that combining the MegaCore motor with a higher-temperature fuel cell and stacks of power inverters will give the company enough power to fly an aircraft as big as the Q400 within a few years. It already has flown smaller aircraft, including a 19-seat Dornier 228 earlier this year.
Fuel cells are not new technology. The idea of combining hydrogen and oxygen together, creating water vapor, heat and a stream of free electrons to be harnessed as electricity, is a proven technology used today in some cars.
However, the specific fuel cell technology used in autos isn’t enough to power a large aircraft.
What is new, said Youcef Abdelli, who is ZeroAvia’s chief technology officer for propulsion, is that the company has found ways to capture 60% to 65% of the energy generated by the fuel cell. This leads to a more-efficient system that converts more of the electrons to thrust.
Miftakov said ZeroAvia will need to stretch the technology to the 5 MW to 6 MW range in order to fly a regional aircraft like the Q400.
The company also is partnering with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on a project involving motors for its CRJ series aircraft. ZeroAvia hopes to have an announcement regarding that soon, he said.
Miftakov said ZeroAvia expects to have its first hydrogen-electric motors for the general aviation market in about two years. Motors for something powerful enough to fly the Q400 are about five years out, he said. “We see a lot of momentum.”
The technology is advancing rapidly, said Alaska’s Saleh.
Alaska’s involvement started with Saleh and a friend brainstorming over coffee in mid-2020, trying to figure out how to meet the company’s ambitious goal of being net carbon neutral by 2040.
At that time, Saleh said, hydrogen-electric motors were a far-out idea. “Two-and-a-half years ago, it would have been a stretch.”
But today, the airline is looking at hydrogen-electric motors as a viable option for its regional fleet, he said.
Some 30% of Alaska Air Group’s flights are regional, according to a spokeswoman.
For those kinds of short flights, a propeller-driven, zero-carbon aircraft would be “ideal,” Saleh said. It could even open up flights between second- and third-tier airports that aren’t affordable to serve with carbon-powered aircraft, given the fuel costs.
Given that, ZeroAvia’s Q400 project is looking like “the right aircraft for the right mission,” he said. “This is a really promising thing.”
ZeroAvia is not the only developer of hydrogen-powered aircraft powerplants. On March 2, Universal Hydrogen flew a modified Dash 8-300, which nominally holds 37 passengers, on a demonstration flight from Grant County Airport in Moses Lake, WA.
ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen have very different approaches to getting the hydrogen to the aircraft however.
Universal Hydrogen envisions using electrolysis to generate separate hydrogen from water at centralized sites, then filling large canisters of compressed hydrogen to be delivered to airfields, where ground crews would swap full canisters for empty ones between flights.
Materials posted at Monday’s demonstration show that ZeroAvia is proposing to generate green hydrogen on each airport, using an array of renewable electricity generators (such as solar panels) to generate the energy needed to separate the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in water.
The hydrogen then would be compressed onsite and pumped through lines to refuel aircraft, not too much unlike the way current commercial jets are refueled with Jet A.
The disadvantage to the ZeroAvia concept would be that each airport would need to develop its own dedicated hydrogen infrastructure, and would need to dedicate land for the solar arrays.
There may be U.S. government support for such projects.
U.S. Congresswoman Suzan Del Bene (D-WA) said during Monday’s ceremony that she has introduced legislation that would direct the U.S. Departments of Energy and Transportation to work more closely together to support the development of carbon-free powerplants for ships and aircrafts.
She also said she supports tax credits for hydrogen technology development.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, another Democrat, said he already has funneled $700,000 from the state’s Strategic Investment Reserve into ZeroAvia’s development project.
And Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, whose local government owns Paine Field, noted that in March, the airport had announced a partnership with Washington State University to open a first-of-its-kind Sustainable Aviation Fuels R&D center that will collect, test and distribute various types of SAF for use in large aircraft.
The area around Everett is becoming a hub for sustainable aviation initiatives, Somers said. “We’re really excited to be a part of the future of aviation.”
Along with public-sector support, ZeroAvia is backed by the Bill Gates-led Breathrough Energy Ventures, a $2.5 billion venture capital fund that is investing in climate-friendly technologies globally.
“Aviation is one of those really hard problems where we have a long way to go,” said Matt Eggers, a Breakthrough partner.
ZeroAvia is one of the projects that his fund sees having potential to achieve climate goals while also generating “a very positive return on capital,” he said.
“I think they will,” Eggers said. “I think this is it.”
Monday’s ceremony started late, after Inslee announced Monday morning that he would not seek an unprecedented fourth term as Washington’s governor in 2024. Inslee, who is currently the nation’s longest-serving governor, is only the second Washington politician elected to three terms as governor. Washington state does not have term limits.
After the ceremony, he told Seattle-area reporters that while “I love my job,” after a decade in office he’s realized that it is “time to pass the torch.”
He is not planning a leisurely retirement, however. Inslee, who had a short-lived 2020 presidential campaign that focused on climate change issues, said he would seek out a new career supporting the green energy industry.
“I have too many strong feelings about the necessity of beating climate change,” he said.
During the ceremony, he recounted a recent snowshoeing trip in Mount Rainier National Park, where rangers told him that the iconic peak’s glaciers have lost 50% of their volume in his lifetime.
He gestured to the ZeroAvia testbed and declared that “this airplane is a way to save the glaciers on Mount Rainier,” while also preserving riverine habitat for endangered salmon and stopping the forest fires whose smoke has choked Washington residents in recent years.
Most likely will airports be hocked up to natural gas pipelines and make H2 from it. You can also assume H2 will be mixed into the natural gas at sites with lots of renewable energy like polar wind turbine parks. The FAA/USAF can allow wind power at windy airports in the future, defining safety distances to runway and airways.
H2 using existing natural gas pipelines is a pipe dream (ha ha) which the oil and gas industry like to push all the time. The reality is that hydrogen is not compatible with methane infrastructure (hydrogen brittleness means different pipe materials are required, different combustion properties means all your burners and boilers will need to change as well). Burning hydrogen is also less efficient than burning methane.
Hydrogen from gas also involves big losses and is another thing the oil and gas industry like to push as “the solution” purely for their own benefit.
There are already municipal areas here in The Netherlands where H2 is being supplied to homes through existing piping that was previously used for natural gas, with minimal modificatiions.
The brittleness issue has been debunked (link in Dutch).
For years, there has also been a dedicated hydrogen pipeline running from Rotterdam in The Netherlands through Belgium and into France.
“Dedicated pipeline” is not what we’re talking about. I’m also guessing that the municipal areas you’re talking about are new builds where this was a consideration – all I’ve heard about old existing infrastructure is that considerable upgrades would be necessary. Your article comes from – suprise-surprise – the oil and gas industry.
Not dismissing what you’ve written but it doesn’t really change what I’ve heard which is that it’s a big red herring to distract from battery electric.
Ever considered that “what you’ve heard” is sponsored by parties with vested interests in the battery electric industry?
Mr. Twitter regularly refers to “fool cells” — not really surprising coming from a “battery man”, is it?
And, no: the municipal areas to which I’m referring are not new builds — for example (again, link in Dutch):
Don’t know how you conclude that the article that I posted above comes from the “oil and gas industry”: it comes from an industrial consortium specialized in coating technology.
Yes you need certain class of pipelines for the H2 mix in. I don’t know how common they are, also the technology to separate out H2 from Natural gas is available but uncertain if it is sold as a standard product in industrial scale yet. Still all of this is coming sooner or later to an airport near you when JET-A1 becomes hard to buy (Like Avgas 100LL)
Hydrogen embrittlement was a problem for the Bergius hydrogenation process used by Germany to make synthetic oil. They used an alloy, bondur I think. They however were operating at 700 atmospheres pressure and higher temperatures which is rather more than pipeline delivery. It was also used in centrifugal enrichment.
“The disadvantage to the ZeroAvia concept would be that each airport would need to develop its own dedicated hydrogen infrastructure, and would need to dedicate land for the solar arrays.”
Airport buildings tend to have large roof areas. These can carry solar arrays, provided the underlying construction is strong enough to support the extra weight.
A Small Modular Reactor would also provide plenty of nuclear energy, without requiring much space at all.
Norsk Hydro have been selling ekectrolysers for hydrogen production since the 1920s so it’s a well and stablished technology. . The hydrogen was used for ammonia production at hydro dams in Norway, Canada, Aswan and many other places till natural gas reformation into hydrogen became cheaper. Smaller scale electrolysers are widely used by industry to avoid handling bottled hydrogen. Margarine manufacturers and certain welding and chemical processes. An airport could use solar or wind but it need not be at the terminal or near the runway but could be some kilometres away. It would be rather useful for isolated airports that have no road access most of the year. This is quite common ie land routes open only when rivers and lakes frozen or when but closed off by mud. It’s a niche. These ares are however also candidates for eVTOL type vehicles.
The SMR concept is interesting especially if thermochemical water splitting is used. The power needed to refuel a super jumbo is enormous so a major airport would need almost 1GW. I would say it would be many kilometres from an airport and the hydrogen transmitted by pipeline. Tunnel boring for small tinnnels under a few meters is not expensive
Time for AS to put money where its mouth is: a firm order.
There is no parallel universe where hydrogen fuel cells become more efficient and cost effective than current fuels, or even SAF, for that matter. The cost to compress hydrogen is inescapable. It’s a fair question if the excess land around airports (think strips between taxiways and runways) can be suitable for solar. But once you get the electricity, H2 is not the right way to store it. Silicon and SS batteries are advancing rapidly; ammonia is lower cost as a liquid fuel and already available. It would be an interesting analysis to see how much electric power a regional airport would require for lighting and operations, let alone aircraft. Hypothesis: it’s fanciful.
“There is no parallel universe where hydrogen fuel cells become more efficient and cost effective than current fuels, or even SAF”
They don’t have to be “more efficient”: they enjoy other considerable advantages that are attractive enough to make them worth trying out.
”they enjoy other considerable advantages that are attractive enough to make them worth trying out.” – I’m struggling to see what those are. SAF/green ammonia is carbon neutral and probably equally efficient or better; batteries (at higher kw/kg, coming) are far more efficient and avoid all the fuel cell issues like limited lifespan (only 10,000 hours now). So please outline those advantages.
There’s a difference between “zero emission” and “carbon neutral”.
Fuel-cell-driven motors produce zero emissions: no CO2, no NOx, no contrails.
Electric motors are cheaper, quieter and easier to maintain than gas turbines. Moreover, they can be manufactured by the aircraft OEM itself, thus removing dependence on external engine suppliers — and increasing in-house revenue.
Agreed in general re electric motors v combustion, but why H2 instead of Ammonia or batteries?
Batteries don’t have the required energy density for viable commercial aviation.
NH3 as a fuel isn’t zero-emission.
NH3 can be a useful way of transporting/storing hydrogen — with an NH3–>H2 conversion step before use.
I’m waiting to hear the advantages of LH2 over SAF or NH3 as an H carrier.
Strange, seeing als those advantages have already been set forth here…
This is a link to an Australian government web site detail an ammonia release in a refrigeration plant.
A ton of aviation fuel contains about 11MWHr energy and to refuel a super jumbo with 100 tons every hour would need 1100MW ie 1G.1 GW. This is a full scale AP1000 reactor. Aviation energy required sounds daunting but in context it is a drop in on the ocean of the much greater amount of hydrogen we need to make our fertilisers, smelt our iron, propel our ships drive and many other processes.
@William Great reality check. A 737 flight uses roughly 11,400 lbs of fuel in a two hour flight. I think that’s 1850 kg of LH2. Currently electrolysis of H2 requires 48 kWhr per Kg so I get 88.8 MWhr. But then you lose 30% to liquify and 30% in fuel cell losses, so 88/.7/.7= 181 MWhr. Not as bad as you calculated but still, only 6 departures an hour does equal an entire 1 GW power plant per regional airport. Please correct the math if necessary. @Bryce, comments?
It’s no secret that electrification of transport, industry and domestic utilities requires a 7x increase in today’s electricity generating capacity — regardless of whether that electrification is direct drive, battery drive or fuel cell drive. Why do you think that there’s so much renewed interest in nuclear?
And, if you’re going to make a fair comparison of Jet-A to LH2, don’t forget to factor in the energy required for industrial capture/storage of Jet-A’s emissions. At a fundamental level, the only difference between the two is that LH2 requires energy input before use (production), whereas Jet-A requires energy input after use (clean up).
I shouldn’t dive in again, but can’t resist as that is just more FUD.
This morning I happened to listen to yet another(*) podcast discussing the practical and legislative changes as well as financial benefits already happening as a result of bi-directional vehicle charging – this is going to be normal and it will REDUCE load on the electrical grids as EV batteries will be used as buffers to counter peak loads and stabilise AC frequency etc. on the electrical grids.
No idea where your “no secret” 7x increase comes from since I have heard representatives of e.g. the UK National Grid enthusing about vehicle-to-grid systems allowing renewables to provide most capacity and render “base load” irrelevant. Local infrastructure may need capacity increases for multiple households on a street to charge at the same time (though even this will be mitigated by smarter charging) but the national capacity requirement is likely to GO DOWN.
(*) the latest in dozens of such items I’ve read/heard on this topic over the last couple of years
@ Someone In Toulose
It’s actually very simple, isn’t it? It’s just basic physics and chemistry.
Calculate the calorific content of all the gas, oil and coal that’s currently used annually worldwide for non-electricity generation purposes, and then calculate the electricity generation capacity needed to replace that calorific content per year.
There are plenty of article like this around:
Here is an easier way to cut aircraft emissions in half–Ban private jets. They are the cause of half of all aviation emissions. Carbon per passenger mile is awful
Their summary might say half of all aviation emissions but the full report says different
‘Global aviation is currently responsible for approximately 3.5 percent of human-driven climate change’. [CO2 emissions]
‘While just a small portion of these carbon emissions are due to private jet use — an estimated 4 percent, according to a 2020 study using pre-pandemic data’ page 13
So which is correct – half of all aviation emissions [1% of all people !]or 4% from private jet use.
Notice the switcheroo on ‘people’ and ‘private jets’
It cannot be anywhere near half of total aviation CO2 emissions. Maybe 5%. Nevertheless, emissions per passenger mile is many times higher (10x or so) than commercial. Of course the same can be said for people flying business class who take up 5 (maybe as much as 10) times more space on the aircraft as do economy class passengers.
Do we ban private aviation? Do we mandate that all commercial flights be economy class only. The best answer is, as always, a carbon fee (mostly refunded on a some kind of per capita basis. Make the large emitters pay, make coal fired electricity much more expensive, make flying in general, or driving, or home heating, etc. more expensive. With the rebate all but the highest 10-20% or so of emitters (that’s all of us by the way) ends up with a net gain AND with a financial incentive to reduce emissions.
Politically impossible at least for now and the near future but banning private aviation, first class travel, big houses with few occupants, etc. is not happening either.
As for the CO2 emissions of Mr. renewable energy Musk, one is only surprised if one has not been paying attention.
@ Bryce: I am getting my information from several sources which, while being about the energy transition, are not directly affiliated with any corporations or vested interest.
Your article says right at the bottom: “MEER INFORMATIE http://www.gasunie.nl” – in other words it’s coming directly from the very same industry I was warning about!
Gasunie is responsible for providing and maintaining the natural gas distribution infrastructure in The Netherlands.
It’s referenced at the end of the article for those readers who want more info on that infrastructure…and it’s actively involved in ongoing pilot projects to use the infrastructure for H2 transport.
Exactly – so what kind of technology do you think a gas pipeline company would like to see replacing the natural gas infrastructure?! More gas pipelines, obiously! “Wij van WC Eend…”
This and promoting a couple of silly pilot schemes with 12(!) houses is all a distraction from the obvious and urgent change to better, cheaper, greener electric solutions such as heat pumps and induction cooking which are proven and mature technologies, less polluting (including indoor air quality) and already outperform existing systems.
Hydrogen for consumers is a complete dead end and it’s wasting everyone’s time to keep flogging that dead horse.
Hydrogen for air transport, on the other hand, may be an option although it could end up being something like green hydrogen used to generate SAF rather than H2 on-board. In any case, it should never be coming from hydrocarbons like the oil-and-gas fairy wants you to believe.
A natural gas pipeline company would probably prefer to continue supplying natural gas, don’t you think? Switching to H2 is not exactly in line with its current business model.
Getting into a temper because your original comments above (relating to use of existing pipelines / brittleness) have been debunked, isn’t going to solve anything.
Countries will decide themselves what mix of energy they use. Lots of countries are interested in hydrogen for domestic / industrial use. If other countries want to adopt an alternative approach, then off they go.
The Netherlands is already comissioning extra nuclear reactors to facilitate production of green H2, in addition to using wind power. If your country wants to follow a different path, then off it goes.
Sure “debunked”, whatever.
Technically feasible, at great cost, yet still worse than the alternatives. It’s big business trying to con the public – like the record labels trying to outlaw MP3 or cigarette companies promoting “healthier” filter cigarettes all over again.
I won’t continue banging my head on this wall any longer.
Perhaps MIT should contact the Dutch to ask them about real-world experience with H2 transport through existing gas pipelines?
Europe and Asia are ahead of the US in a surprising number of technical fields — did you know that? One can save a lot of time and trouble by talking to one’s neighbors 😏
I feel that “electroprop” would be a pretty good word. “Electric turboprop” feels a little bit funny.
@ Bryce, re. alleged 7x electric power requirements:
“It’s actually very simple, isn’t it? It’s just basic physics and chemistry.
Calculate the calorific content of all the gas, oil and coal that’s currently used annually worldwide for non-electricity generation purposes, and then calculate the electricity generation capacity needed to replace that calorific content per year.”
That’s simplistic reasoning for something which isn’t simple at all!
The whole point of the electric switch taking place – barring the ecological argument – is that it is actually far cheaper, more efficient and better than the hydrocarbon-fuelled status quo. Today (once again) I happen to be reading an interesting article in the Guardian which has a very nice graphic illustrating the – large – factor difference in efficiency between battery-electric vehicles and ICE vehicles powered by e-Fuels:
EV efficiency is 82% (outputs 77% of the source energy from 94% arriving at the battery) while the fossil fuel vehicle efficiency is down to 29% (outputs 16% of source energy from 55% arriving in the tank). This article is about green e-Fuels (hence the loss from 100% to 55% at the tank) but people conveniently forget that fossil fuel extraction and refining. Other studies I’ve seen quote final ICE extraction-to-output efficiency at about 20% as well. So transport requires less than a quarter of the energy. Home heating using heat pumps has an even greater efficiency versus gas/oil heating, similar thing for induction versus gas cooking. I see nowhere near the “7x” requirement you quote from that oil industry produced article.
And that’s not even including the power reducing effects of peak-smoothing from home/vehicle batteries, regenerative braking in vehicles, home solar, etc.
The inevitable switch to electric is going to be cheaper, healthier and just better for everyone… except the oil and gas industry.
You’re talking about something completely different to what I’m talking about.
Regardless of the “efficiency” of electric vehicles, the electricity to power them has to come from somewhere.
In today’s world, numbers of electric road vehicles are only a tiny fraction of those of fossil-fuel road vehicles, and electric penetration into the trucking, shipping and aviation sectors is essentially zero. Then there’s all that home heating that still uses fossil fuels, not to mention industrial use of gas, oil and coal. In certain countries — such as the US and India — electrification of rail infrastructure is also essentially zero.
Change all of that to electric and you have to vastly increase generation capacity. The link I posted talks about a 480% increase just in the US and just to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals. Calculations of this type take Carnot limits into account, so efficiency arguments are irrelevant.
You accuse others of FUD. They can similarly accuse you of denialism.