Much acclaimed first hydrogen flight (6 seater plane) used hydrogen generated by high carbon grid electricity
The alleged first test flight of a tiny plane fuelled by hydrogen took place recently. The plane was a little 6 seater, and it flew on a small circuit from Cranfield airport. There was much hype about this supposedly huge technical leap, to a zero carbon fuel. In reality, the New Scientist ascertained that the hydrogen was produced using grid electricity, which therefore caused the emission of carbon dioxide, as most grid electricity is produced from fossil fuels. UK and US-based ZeroAvia flew the plane saying it was the first hydrogen fuel cell flight of a commercial-size aircraft. The company hailed the test as “the first step to realising the transformational possibilities of moving from fossil fuels to zero-emission hydrogen”. UK aviation minister Robert Courts said the flight was a sign of the “commitment of government of ensuring we get to net-zero” emissions and a “historic” moment for aviation. The hydrogen was produced using an electrolyser, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. However, ZeroAvia admitted that this was not using low carbon energy (in September around 40% of UK grid electricity was produced from oil or gas). Genuinely low carbon hydrogen on any scale is years away.
‘Zero emissions’ hydrogen plane test was part powered by fossil fuels
30 September 2020
By Adam Vaughan (New Scientist)
The first test flight of a hydrogen passenger plane ran on fuel produced in large part by fossil fuels, the company behind the plane has admitted.
UK and US-based ZeroAvia last week flew a six-seater plane running on hydrogen instead of kerosene, saying it was the first hydrogen fuel cell flight of a commercial-size aircraft. The company hailed the test as “the first step to realising the transformational possibilities of moving from fossil fuels to zero-emission hydrogen”.
UK aviation minister Robert Courts said the flight was a sign of the “commitment of government of ensuring we get to net-zero” emissions and a “historic” moment for aviation.
The hydrogen was produced using an electrolyser, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. However, ZeroAvia has now told New Scientist that the electricity required to do this was supplied by the UK grid, meaning the ultimate source of energy was, in large part, fossil fuels.
The grid has cleaned up rapidly in recent years, but is still polluting. On average in September, 42 per cent of UK electricity supplies were from gas and coal power stations, meaning every megawatt hour generated released 185 kg of CO2, according to figures supplied by Iain Stafell at Imperial College London. Typically, “green hydrogen” is considered to be hydrogen made using an electrolyser powered by 100 per cent renewable sources.
ZeroAvia’s disclosure has prompted warnings of the risk of greenwashing. Environmentalists have raised concerns in recent months that growing promotion of hydrogen as a clean fuel source has largely ignored the fact it is currently mostly produced using fossil fuels, directly or indirectly.
Tara Connolly at Friends of the Earth Europe says: “This news confirms our misgivings that hydrogen is already being used today to greenwash polluting industries and more fossil fuel use. Only hydrogen produced fully from renewable energy can be called zero emissions and this type of hydrogen makes up less than 1 per cent of hydrogen produced in Europe today.”
Julian Renz at ZeroAvia notes that Cranfield University, UK, which owns the airport where the hydrogen was produced, has a solar power installation. However, that exports electricity to local electricity networks rather than sending it direct to an electrolyser, and strictly speaking all the electricity is imported from the grid.
The company says it is working on choosing a 100 per cent renewable energy supplier. “Wherever ZeroAvia can, we aim to use zero-emissions sources to power our electrolyser. However, this is often largely dependent on the sites and locations that we use, and in this case, we are dependent on Cranfield’s electricity supply,” says a spokesperson.
Andrew Murphy at Belgium-based NGO Transport & Environment says the flight was an important step, but the investment needed to scale up such flights to commercial deployment may be a bigger issue than whether there is enough green hydrogen. “The availability of sufficient quantities of green hydrogen is a bridge to be crossed once we’ve addressed the more immediate challenge, which is the design and scalability of the aircraft itself,” he says.
See the ZeroAvia publicity for their flight:
ZeroAvia Completes World First Hydrogen-Electric Passenger Plane Flight [a 6 seater plane]
25 September, 2020
— Leading innovator in the decarbonisation of aviation makes major breakthrough with first hydrogen fuel cell flight of a commercial-size aircraft.
— ZeroAvia’s retrofitted Piper M-class is now the largest hydrogen powered aircraft in the world.
LONDON, ZeroAvia, the leading innovator in decarbonising commercial aviation, has completed the world first hydrogen fuel cell powered flight of a commercial-grade aircraft. The flight took place yesterday at the company’s R&D facility in Cranfield, England, with the Piper M-class six-seat plane completing taxi, takeoff, a full pattern circuit, and landing.
ZeroAvia’s achievement is the first step to realising the transformational possibilities of moving from fossil fuels to zero-emission hydrogen as the primary energy source for commercial aviation. Eventually, and without any new fundamental science required, hydrogen-powered aircraft will match the flight distances and payload of the current fossil fuel aircraft.
This major milestone on the road to commercial zero-emission flight is part of the HyFlyer project, a sequential R&D programme supported by the UK Government and follows the UK’s first ever commercial-scale battery-electric flight, conducted in the same aircraft in June. ZeroAvia will now turn its attention to the next and final stage of its six-seat development program – a 250-mile zero emission flight out of an airfield in Orkney before the end of the year. The demonstration of this range is roughly equivalent to busy major routes such as Los Angeles to San Francisco or London to Edinburgh.
Val Miftakhov, CEO, ZeroAvia comments:
“It’s hard to put into words what this means to our team, but also for everybody interested in zero-emission flight. While some experimental aircraft have flown using hydrogen fuel cells as a power source, the size of this commercially available aircraft shows that paying passengers could be boarding a truly zero-emission flight very soon. All of the team at ZeroAvia and at our partner companies can be proud of their work getting us to this point, and I want to also thank our investors and the UK Government for their support.”
Aviation Minister Robert Courts, said:
“Aviation is a hotbed of innovation and ZeroAvia’s fantastic technology takes us all one step closer to a sustainable future for air travel. Through our ground-breaking Jet Zero partnership we’re working hard with industry to drive innovation in zero carbon flight, and we look forward to seeing the sector go from strength to strength.”
ZeroAvia’s innovation programme in the UK is part-funded through the UK Government’s Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) Programme. Through the HyFlyer project, ZeroAvia is working with key partners the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) and Intelligent Energy to decarbonise medium-range small passenger aircraft by demonstrating powertrain technology to replace conventional engines in propeller aircraft. Intelligent Energy will optimise its high power fuel cell technology for application in aviation whilst EMEC, producers of green hydrogen from renewable energy, will supply the hydrogen required for flight tests and develop a mobile refuelling platform compatible with the plane.
Business and Industry Minister Nadhim Zahawi said:
“Developing aircraft that create less pollution will help the UK make significant headway in achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Backed by Government funding, this flight is another exciting milestone in ZeroAvia’s project. It shows that technologies to clean up air travel are now at our fingertips – with enormous potential to build back better and drive clean economic growth in the UK.”
Recently, ZeroAvia was also invited by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to join the UK’s JetZero Council and help lead the UK towards the ambitious goal of achieving the first ever zero emission long haul passenger flight.
Gary Elliott, CEO of the Aerospace Technology Institute, said:
“This is an important milestone for HyFlyer and UK aerospace, and we send our congratulations to the team. It is through supporting projects such as HyFlyer, and new and innovative companies such as ZeroAvia, that the ATI aims to deliver our vision for future sustainable aviation and secure a lead for UK aerospace in the highly-competitive global market.”
In addition to all the aircraft work, ZeroAvia and EMEC have developed the Hydrogen Airport Refuelling Ecosystem (HARE) at Cranfield Airport – a microcosm of what the hydrogen airport ecosystem will look like in terms of green hydrogen production, storage, refuelling and fuel cell powered-flight. This also marks another world’s first – a fully operational hydrogen production and refueling airport facility for primary commercial aircraft propulsion.
The successful flight represents good news for the aviation industry’s role in supporting the net zero transition, but also raises hopes for innovation that can reduce commercial challenges in the medium term, particularly important for the industry as it considers the post pandemic recovery. ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-electric powertrain is projected to have lower operating costs than its jet-fuelled competition due to lower fuel and maintenance costs. The company plans to control hydrogen fuel production and supply for its powertrains, and other commercial customers, substantially reducing the fuel availability and pricing risks for the entire market.
ZeroAvia is a leader in zero-emission aviation, focused on hydrogen-electric aviation solutions to address a variety of markets, initially targeting 500 mile range in 10-20 seat aircraft used for commercial passenger transport, package delivery, agriculture, and more. Based in London and California, ZeroAvia has already secured experimental certificates for its two prototype aircraft, passed significant flight test milestones, and is on track for commercial operations in 2023. The company’s expanding UK operations are partially supported by the grant from UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK, and ZeroAvia is part of the UK Government’s Jet Zero Council. For more, please visit ZeroAvia.com, follow @ZeroAvia on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
The HyFlyer project aims to decarbonise medium range small passenger aircraft by demonstrating powertrain technology to replace conventional piston engines in propeller aircraft.
HyFlyer will demonstrate a phased approach from battery power to hydrogen power, integrating the new technology aboard a Piper M-class aircraft, which will perform initial test flights out of Cranfield and culminate in a 250 – 300 nautical mile (NM) demonstration flight out of an airfield in Orkney.
The project is led by ZeroAvia with project partners the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) and Intelligent Energy.
The HyFlyer project is supported by the ATI Programme, a joint Government and industry investment to maintain and grow the UK’s competitive position in civil aerospace design and manufacture. The programme, delivered through a partnership between the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Innovate UK, addresses technology, capability and supply chain challenges.