ZeroAvia Solves Green Hydrogen Chicken-&-Egg Conundrum
April 4, 2022
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  • The hydrogen fuel cell aircraft firm ZeroAvia has yet to launch a commercial flight. Nevertheless, it has already launched a scheme to secure a supply of hydrogen at airports in the US. Natural gas has long been the primary source of hydrogen in the global marketplace, but gas stakeholders better not start counting their chickens yet. After all, this is 2022 and not 2002, or even 2020, and ZeroAvia is laying plans for green hydrogen from renewable resources.

    The Green Hydrogen Chicken-&-Egg Situation

    For those of you new to the topic, stakeholders in the hydrogen fuel cell aircraft field have found themselves in a familiar situation as the transportation field decarbonizes. They have the zero emission technology in hand, but the fueling stations are few and far between.

    It doesn’t have to be that way forever. Battery-powered electric vehicles faced a similar situation in the not too distant past, and look at them now. It was tough to convince a motorist to buy an electric car without promising the same convenience, if not better, than pulling up to a gas station. Now EV charging stations are multiplying like rabbits, at homes and workplaces in addition to public charging sites. EV charging station availability still falls short in some areas, but those issues are resolve-able.

    The carbon footprint issue also has a familiar feel. Both EV battery charging and hydrogen production are tinged with the fossil energy curse, but that issue is resolving itself as fossil energy loses its grip on electricity generation and the green hydrogen market grows.

    All this is by way of saying that past is not prelude in the decarbonization field. Battery technology set the stage as automotive and power generations stakeholders set to work, and now fuel cells are having a moment.

    More Hydrogen For Fuel Cell Aircraft

    That brings us around to the issue of green hydrogen availability for fuel cell aircraft, and that’s where ZeroAvia comes in. The company has just announced a new partnership with the startup ZEV Station, aimed at making green hydrogen fuel stations available at airports, initially in California (check out CleanTechnica’s ZeroAvia archive for more news).

    If ZEV Station doesn’t ring any bells, join the club. The company is new on the CleanTechnica radar, having been formed last year with the aim of increasing the availability of both battery charging stations and fuel cell refueling stations, all with renewable energy.

    “ZeroAvia will leverage its significant research and development in hydrogen production and refueling for aviation alongside ZEV Station’s extensive team experience in the provision of gaseous hydrogen for road vehicles, in order to develop an innovative hydrogen airport refueling system,” ZeroAvia explains.

    The “extensive team experience” is a reference to ZEV Station’s pedigree in the EV battery charging and hydrogen fuel cell spaces. Our friends over at electrive.com got the scoop last year, reporting that ZEV Station founder, CEO, and CTO Jesse Schneider previously headed up fuel cell development for the zero emission truck startup Nikola (which was hit with securities fraud allegations over the summer).

    “Schneider was considered an important mind behind Nikola’s fuel cell plans. The engineer has been working on fuel cell vehicles since 2001, first for Mercedes-Benz North America, later for DaimlerChrysler,” ZeroAvia enthuses. “Via a station at Proton Motor Fuel Cell in Puchheim, Bavaria, he came to BMW, where he initially continued to work on FCEV projects.”

    ZeroAvia also notes that Schneider’s tenure at BMW included plug-in battery electric hybrids and wireless EV charging, which dovetails with the idea of offering both EV charging and hydrogen refueling under the same umbrella.

    More Green Hydrogen For Fuel Cell Aircraft

    The ZEV Station partnership will build on ZeroAvia’s previous work in establishing green hydrogen production and fueling hubs at airports.

    “Busy hubs can produce economies of scale for hydrogen production and thus make it more economical to remove greenhouse gas emissions in other areas such as ground operations, onward transportation links, and proximate industry,” ZeroAvia explains.

    ZEV Station is not the first company to cook up the idea of combining EV charging with sustainable H2 production, but it is already envisioning a scaled up, “hub and spoke” model that would link high-volume green hydrogen production sites with satellite fueling stations, aimed at decarbonizing ground vehicles as well as aircraft. The ultimate goal would be a “Zero Emission Airport,” which may have seemed like a pipe dream as recently as last year.

    Well, that was then. ZeroAvia is already pursuing plans beyond the hydrogen fuel cell-friendly California market.

    “Shell is both an investor in the business and fueling partner, and ZeroAvia has also partnered with Octopus Hydrogen to help power its current flight testing program in the UK,” ZeroAvia explains, taking note of plans for a zero-emission, London-to-Rotterdam route.

    Next steps include a test flight for the ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-fueled electric aircraft on its Dornier-228 testbed, as an element in the UK’s HyFlyer II project.

    Saving The Planet, One Airplane At A Time

    Last December, United Airlines announced that it has dibs on the first batch of commercial-ready ZeroAvia fuel cell aircraft to roll off the assembly line, but don’t hold your breath for big airliners that hold 200 passengers or more.

    ZeroAvia’s initial goal is a 600kW, 19-seat maximum in 2024, with an eyeball on the 40–80 seat market by 2026. Towards that end, the company expects to start testing 1.8 MW prototypes this year.

    Shorter version: the airline industry has a long decarbonization road ahead of it. Industry stakeholders will need to pursue multiple multiple paths, and that is already happening.

    United has put stakes down in the battery-electric aircraft field, with an eye on the 19-seat field. United and other industry stakeholders are also continuing to lean on biofuel for larger aircraft, so it looks like the biofuel industry can breath a sigh of relief, at least for now.

    Biofuel is getting squeezed out of the ground transportation area by battery and fuel cell electric vehicles, but it looks like airborne mobility will continue to offer opportunities for the foreseeable future.

    The opportunity for a biofuel makeover recently got a boost from the US Department of Energy, has its eye on new, carbon-negative biofuel for aircraft.

    The sustainable aircraft fuel area also includes electro-fuels and other non-bio innovations, which opens up additional pathways for decarbonization.