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London Tech Week

After $30M funding, UK startup creates history by completing first flight of world’s largest hydrogen-electric plane

Photo Credit: ZeroAvia

ZeroAvia, a hydrogen-electric plane developer, has successfully completed the first flight of its 19-passenger aircraft less than a month after receiving a permit to fly from the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Its 10 minutes maiden flight sets a world record for the largest aircraft powered by a hydrogen-electric engine, representing a watershed moment for clean aviation.

The flight is part of the HyFlyer II project, which is supported by the UK Government’s flagship ATI Programme and aims to develop a 600kW powertrain to support 9-19 seat aircraft worldwide with zero-emission flight.

It coexisted with a single Honeywell TPE-331 engine installed on the left wing of the twin-engine aircraft. During takeoff, lithium-ion battery packs provide additional redundancy and peak power support for the hydrogen-electric powertrain, which is made up of two stacks of fuel cells. This testbed configuration housed hydrogen tanks and fuel cell power generation systems inside the cabin. In a commercial setup, external storage would be used and the seats would be restored.

Founded by Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia is a zero-emission aviation company that creates planes with hydrogen-electric propulsion. Val Miftakhov was born in Belarus and grew up with an oil industry father who built refineries in Russia. Miftakhov studied physics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, where he won first place in the national Physics Olympics. He then went to Princeton for his master’s and doctorate degrees.

The company currently operates in the United States and the United Kingdom, and it has previously obtained experimental certificates for prototype aircraft from both the CAA and the FAA.

With its 600kW powertrain, ZeroAvia has been working to develop zero-emission commercial aircraft operations by 2024, aiming for nine to nineteen-seat aircraft with a range of 300 miles. The next propulsion system will be a two to five-megawatt model with a 700-mile range goal.

Hydrogen-powered plane: the future?

ZeroAvia announced an additional $30M in funding last year to support the advancement of its hydrogen-electric plane technology bringing total fund raised to $68M. Along with an additional $35M from United Airlines, the company has already received investments from Alaska Air Group.

At the end of December, ZeroAvia announced that it had received the UK license necessary to launch its 19-seat Dornier 228 twin-engine aircraft.

Val Miftakhov, Founder and CEO of ZeroAvia said, “This is a major moment, not just 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 just how scalable our technology is and highlights the rapid progress of zero-emission propulsion. This is only the beginning – we are building the future of sustainable, zero climate impact aviation. Our approach is the best solution to accelerate clean aviation at scale. Congratulations to everyone on our team and all of our partners and stakeholders for the collective effort that brought us to this monumental day in history.” 

This latest accomplishment builds on ZeroAvia’s previous achievements, which include 6-seat prototype flights of a Piper M-Class airframe in 2019 and the world’s first commercial-scale 6-seater hydrogen-electric powered flight in September 2020. In the United Kingdom, the 2020 prototype was part of the HyFlyer I programme. In contrast to the previous tech demonstrator programme, ZeroAvia’s 600kW engine under development under HyFlyer II is a commercial-intent programme.
Electric batteries are being considered for some small aircraft, such as the flying taxi services offered by Volocopter and Lilium. However, these would lack the performance of larger aircraft. Also, Pipistrel, a light aircraft manufacturer, is developing hydrogen-powered planes, and Universal Hydrogen, a Los Angeles-based startup founded by former Airbus CTO Paul Eremenko, is developing a retrofitted powertrain and fuel distribution system.

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