ZeroAvia in the United Kingdom flew a converted Piper Malibu from Cranfield University’s airport during the world’s first hydrogen-powered flight with a commercial airframe. While experimental planes have flown with a fuel cell before, this is the first time an existing aircraft is retrofitted. In June of this year, the airframe had flown in a battery powered, fully electric capacity. Originally from the US, ZeroAvia recolated to the UK because they say there is a better understanding of sustainability in Europe than in North America. They have been working for 2.5 years with £5.5M funding from the CEO, private investors and the British government.
We chose to set up in the UK because in Europe there is a better understanding of sustainability than in North America. There is a great ecosystem here, with technology, industry and a government which is backing environmentally friendly aviation. In the UK we have the Jet Zero Council which wants to have truly zero-emissions aviation, not carbon offsetting.
We are helping the authorities write the rulebook on certifying hydrogen aircraft. It gives us an huge early mover advantage.
– Val Miftakhov, CEO of ZeroAvia
The airframe used for the flight is that of a Piper Malibu, a six-seater originally powered by a piston or turboprop engine. The original powerplant was completely removed and replaced by a fuel cell producing 800-volt and turning hydrogen into electricity. The fuel tank carried 4lb 6oz of hydrogen gas, although future test flights will be flown with 33lb of propellant, which should give it a range of 300 miles. In its first hydrogen-powered flight, the aircraft reached an altitude of 1,000ft and maximum airspeed of 100 knots.
In three years, they intend to have a power system available to fly a 20-seater regional aircraft over a range of 500 miles, with a version for 100-seat airliners ready by 2025. The company says that a Boeing 737 can easily carry enough hydrogen gas to fly 4,000 miles. Because the powertrain has fewer moving parts, ZeroAvia says it is more reliable and cheaper to maintain than current powerplants.
Aviation Minister Robert Courts and Professor Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University, witnessed the historic flight. Courts praised the cooperation between industry and government, while Gray saw a bright future for hydrogen aircraft with the UK leading the way. ZeroAvia believes that the global market for hydrogen-powered aircraft the size of the Malibu is 10,000, and worth about $5 billion (£3.9 billion) a year.
Britain has lost its way in the production of whole aircraft but remains a world leader in technology. This could be the start of the UK leading the world in a new generation of hydrogen aircraft.
– Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University