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British Airways backs hydrogen plane startup ZeroAvia

March 31, 2021, 10:33 AM UTC

British Airways has backed hydrogen plane startup ZeroAvia in a $24.3 million funding round, becoming the first commercial aviation firm on the company’s list of backers.

The latest funding round was led by Li Ka-shing’s Horizons Ventures and included commitments from existing investors, such as the Bill Gates–backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Shell Ventures—the venture capital arm of the oil and gas giant—and Ecosystem Integrity Fund, Summa Equity, and SYSTEMIQ.

That round brings the company’s private backing to over $53 million, with total funding since inception now at $74 million, the company said Wednesday.

“Innovative zero-emissions technology is advancing fast, and we support the development of hydrogen as an alternative fuel source because we believe it has the potential to enable us to reach true zero emissions on short-haul routes by 2050,” Sean Doyle, British Airways CEO, said in a statement.

ZeroAvia said the funding would help boost the development of a 50-plus–seat aircraft and support efforts by commercial airlines to adopt hydrogen.

The company’s first-ever hydrogen-powered flight was in the U.S. in 2019. In September 2020, it conducted its first-ever flight by a commercial-grade aircraft. ZeroAvia said it expects to reach commercialization for its hydrogen-electric powertrain, which includes the aircraft’s engines and all the systems that support it, by 2024; the company said a small, short-range hydrogen plane will come first, followed by a 50-plus–seat commercial jet, by 2026.

The company was founded by Val Miftakhov, a Russian-born serial entrepreneur who has also spent time as a McKinsey & Co. consultant and Google executive. He also started a business around integrating electric cars into the power grid. But as an avid private pilot he says he was inspired to try something to help make air travel less carbon intensive.

ZeroAvia is producing hydrogen-electric powertrains for aircraft along with the necessary avionics and software systems to integrate hydrogen into the planes. It is also helping to create the airport infrastructure necessary to support hydrogen-fueled aircraft. But it is not building its own airframes, Miftakhov says.

Hydrogen has been lauded as one of the best options for reducing emissions in the aviation sector, one of the hardest industries to decarbonize, because of its energy intensity.

Miftakhov says that for the immediate future he sees hydrogen-powered fuel cells as a better solution for decarbonizing air travel compared with full-electric solutions, which he says will require big leaps in battery technology before they can become a viable option for commercial aircraft.

“Hydrogen, as a chemical energy storage, is three times higher energy density per kilogram than jet fuel,” Miftakhov says. “Meanwhile, even the best battery of today is 50 times worse than jet fuel.”

Hydrogen, once produced, can be transported and used much like a conventional fuel—one of its great advantages is that it may be able to use existing fuel infrastructure—while producing only water as a by-product when burned, rather than CO2.

This doesn’t mean hydrogen is necessarily zero-carbon, however. Hydrogen has already been used for years in oil and chemical refining, but the process to create the fuel is energy intensive and, like most industrial processes—uses large quantities of energy, particularly natural gas.

“Green” hydrogen is produced using only renewable energy. But that’s still just a tiny fraction of global supply. In 2019, global low-carbon hydrogen production was 0.36 metric tons per year, according to the IEA—about a half a percent of total annual hydrogen demand.

There is growing momentum from governments to fund and develop green hydrogen industries—countries from the U.K. to South Korea have included hydrogen strategies among their own net-zero emission plans. However, even some of the sector’s pioneers say that green hydrogen is still years away from becoming mainstream, and will need significant government subsidies or a high carbon price to spur meaningful development.

Miftakhov says that established aircraft-engine makers, such as Rolls-Royce and General Electric, have been slow to see the potential of hydrogen fuel cells in the aviation sector.

“They are not interested in this kind of dramatic disruption,” he says. “First, it will kill their revenue streams from turbine engines. Secondly, they were too slow to see how real improvements in this technology in the past few years have suddenly made hydrogen fuel cells for aviation viable.”