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First hydrogen-powered plane takes flight

Alan Tovey
·4-min read
ZeroAvia fly a six-seater, hydrogen powered, Piper Malibu plane from Cranfield University’s airport - ZeroAvia
ZeroAvia fly a six-seater, hydrogen powered, Piper Malibu plane from Cranfield University’s airport - ZeroAvia

The world’s first flight of a commercial-grade aircraft powered by a hydrogen fuel cell has taken place, with UK-based ZeroAvia flying a six-seater Piper Malibu plane from Cranfield University’s airport.

Val Miftakhov, chief executive of the start-up, was one of the pilots on the eight-minute flight which saw the aircraft – registration G-HYZA in a nod to its fuel source – do two circuits of the Bedfordshire airfield, reaching 1,000ft and 100 knots.

The flight was used to demonstrate the viability of the ZeroAvia’s 800-volt emission-free powertrain, which turns hydrogen into electricity to drive the Piper’s propellor.

It was also the culmination of a two-and-a-half year, £5.5m programme funded jointly by Mr Miftakhov, private investors and the British government.

“This first flight is symbolic, getting the aircraft into the air, but I’ve no nerves as we have done so much ground testing,” Mr Miftakhov said. 

A hydrogen fuelled Piper Malibu plane prepares to take off Cranfield University airstrip - ZeroAvia
A hydrogen fuelled Piper Malibu plane prepares to take off Cranfield University airstrip - ZeroAvia

The aircraft was fuelled with 4lb 6oz of hydrogen gas for the flight, which is run through a “stack” that converts it into electricity with the only byproducts being water and heat. The hydrogen-electric power system replaces the aircraft’s existing petrol-powered internal combustion engine.

Now ZeroAvia is planning a series of demonstration flights with 33lb of fuel, which should give the aircraft a range of 300 miles and performance comparable to a conventional engine. 

Although small aircraft have made flights powered by hydrogen before, the company believes that putting its system into a “stock” aircraft will pave the way for a new generation in flight, with ZeroAvia at its heart.

“We are helping the authorities write the rulebook on certifying hydrogen aircraft,” Mr Miftakhov said. “It gives us an huge early mover advantage.” 

A boost to UK industry

Within three years ZeroAvia, which is based at Cranfield having relocated from the US in 2019, aims to be building power systems in the UK for 20-seat regional aircraft with ranges of 500 miles, and by 2025 will have larger version suitable for 100-seat airliners. 

According to the company’s calculations, an aircraft the size of a Boeing 737 can easily carry enough of the gas to give it a range of 4,000 miles. 

Mr Miftakhov said: “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.”

Aviation Minister Robert Courts was present to watch the test flight and described it as a “historic, world first, moment that shows how government can partner with industry to bring innovation”.

Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield, said that the flight was “as big a moment in aerospace as any in the last 75 years, comparable with the first flight of the jet engine”.

He believes that it also confirms the UK as major player in aerospace and could place the country in the vanguard of sustainable aviation.

Mr Gray added: “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.”

ZeroAvia believes that the global market for hydrogen-powered aircraft the size of the Malibu is 10,000, and worth about $5bn (£3.9bn) a year.

The company believes that because its powertrain has fewer moving parts and therefore is more reliable and needs less maintenance than current technology, it offer lower running costs.

Fuel savings

Once the infrastructure that makes hydrogen readily available is established, it will also offer savings on fuel. 

Together these are expected to offer running costs that are 20pc below current systems, with fuel and maintenance typically representing half of airline costs.    

Earlier this week Airbus also revealed designs for aircraft powered by hydrogen, as the pan-European aerospace giant looks to the future.