• Wed. Jan 12th, 2022

Airline industry catches hydrogen fuel cell fever

ByKimberly A. Brochu

Dec 21, 2021

The dream of an all-electric flight gained momentum last week, when United Airlines announced it had 100 electric planes from startup ZeroAvia. However, fans of battery-powered mobility may need to sit in the back. ZerioAvia specializes in hydrogen fuel cells for zero emission flight, which is a whole different kettle.

Zero-emission flight takes off

Unlike all the activity surrounding electrical technology for land vehicles, the electrification of air transport has a long way to go. Still, a consensus seems to be forming that zero-emission planes will become commonplace in the near future, if only on the smaller end of the scale in terms of passenger capacity and range.

United Airlines is all over this trend. Earlier this summer, the company signed a deal for battery-electric aircraft through its new United Airlines Ventures investment fund, working with Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Mesa Airlines and Heart Aerospace.

The deal sees Heart deliver 100 of its 19-passenger ES-19 battery-electric jets, which will have ranges of up to 250 miles.

100 hydrogen-electric planes under construction

United’s latest foray into electrification appears to give hydrogen fuel cells the edge. United didn’t just make a deal to buy 100 planes from ZeroAvia last week. He also took a stake in the company.

“United has become the largest airline today to invest in zero-emission hydrogen electric motors for regional aircraft, the latest step towards achieving its goal of being 100% green by reducing its GHG emissions by 100% by 2050, without relying on traditional carbon offsets. United enthusiastically.

United’s stake in ZeroAvia is part of a new $ 35 million funding round that includes existing investors, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, AP Ventures, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Horizons Ventures, Summa Equity and Shell Ventures, as well as another new member of the zero emission program. flight club, Alaska Airlines.

ZeroAvia is already one step ahead of hydrogen-electric flight for small planes, having successfully tested a 6-seater last fall. The test flight was another step in a path that appears to put ZeroAvia on track to bring a 10-20 seat aircraft with a range of 500 miles to the market in 2024.

It’s peanuts. The new financial muscle injection aims to develop ZeroAvia’s ZA2000-RJ engines for larger planes, apparently targeting United’s 50-seat CRJ550 regional jets.

The new engines can be used in pairs and can be installed on existing aircraft. United plan to order 50 initially with an option for 50 more, on a 2028 release schedule.

The theft of hydrogen fuel cells is really real – no, really!

If fuel diversification is the watchword, there will be a place for batteries and fuel cells in the green and sparkling airline industry of the future.

Fairly naturally, ZeroAvia is determined to carve out a bigger piece of cheese for fuel cell flight (check out the CleanTechnica archive for additional coverage). The company has formed partnerships with stakeholders to secure its place in the global economy, including technology-focused investor group Rose Cay as well as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, ASL Aviation Holdings, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Regional Jet Division and the Rotterdam The Hague Airport.

A particularly interesting development happened on December 14, when De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited hinted that it was also planning to purchase hydrogen electric motors from ZeroAvia for its popular Dash 8-400 turboprop engines. If all goes according to plan, that number could skyrocket in the near future.

“The companies intend to work together on a service bulletin for the Dash 8-400 type certificate offering the ZeroAvia hydrogen-electric engine as an in-line adaptation option for new aircraft, as well as on the development of new aircraft. ” an OEM approved modernization program for in-service aircraft. Explains De Havilland, noting that the Dash 8-400’s record includes the delivery of more than 625 aircraft and a total of more than 11 million flight hours, with a total number of trips totaling more than 550 million passengers. .

De Havilland is certainly looking forward to playing a leading role in the expansion of fuel cell flight. The company also observes that the deployment of ZeroAvia’s hydrogen fuel cell technology in a full-size Dash 8-400 will promote the development of an Alaska Airlines 76-seat aircraft with a range of 500 nautical miles.

Green hydrogen and the truly zero-emission fuel cell of the future

All of this is well and good except for that little thing about hydrogen in a hydrogen fuel cell. The main source of hydrogen today is natural gas and to some extent coal, which means that a zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell is not necessarily the sustainability hero some claim. to be.

However, as stated earlier in CleanTechnica and elsewhere, the hydrogen supply chain is beginning to diversify. One of the main factors is the falling cost of wind, solar and other renewables. This has made it economically feasible to deploy electrolysis systems, which push hydrogen gas out of water by applying an electric current.

Biogas, industrial waste gases and wastewater are among the other sustainable hydrogen pathways under development, but so far most activities have focused on stepping up electrolysis and reducing waste. costs. This is in part because the production of hydrogen can also stimulate wind and solar development. Electrolysis systems can absorb excess output from wind turbines and solar panels when demand would otherwise be low. Hydrogen production could also help bypass bottlenecks in electricity transmission, enabling wind and solar development without the need for additional infrastructure.

When it comes to scaling, ZeroAvia’s partnership with Mitsubishi provides a clue. Mitsubishi is one of the old engineering companies turning to fuel cell technology and green hydrogen.

Mitsubishi’s contribution to the green hydrogen scene includes a new gas turbine for power generation, which is designed to exit natural gas as the supply of green hydrogen increases.

Mitsubishi launched the new turbine in Utah, where policymakers have hinted that a green hydrogen future for the state has been made. This follows a similar green hydrogen signal from Texas earlier last year.

In the latest development on this subject, the Western States Hydrogen Alliance organization is up and running. The WSHA already brings together the 11 western states under its umbrella, along with Ohio, Louisiana (not surprisingly, given the angle of green ammonia) and Florida (now it’s A suprise). Last week, they announced a name change, to the United States Hydrogen Alliance, to support the hydrogen and fuel cell markets nationwide.

As the USHA will coordinate with the Mitsubishi-backed Western Green Hydrogen Initiative, this is good news for ZeroAvia and other fuel cell fans, so stay tuned for more on this.

Follow me on twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: Hydrogen fuel cell plane courtesy of United Airlines.

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