Wednesday, December 7, 2022
Dec. 7, 2022

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Startup developing hydrogen-powered aviation to open facility in Everett


SEATTLE — ZeroAvia, a startup with facilities in the U.K. and California that aims to integrate hydrogen fuel cells with electric motors to power zero-emission aircraft, said Tuesday it will open a new research facility at Paine Field airport in Everett.

The project received a $350,000 grant from the Department of Commerce, part of the state’s push to promote “clean energy” technology here. It’s expected to provide jobs for an initial team of about 20 design and software engineers.

In addition to the grant, ZeroAvia is using $5.5 million of its own funds to lease and prepare the site for launch. Spokesperson Sarah Malpeli said the company expects to move into the space in February.

ZeroAvia’s planned zero-carbon-emitting propulsion system is in the early developmental stage. It made its first and only experimental flight so far in September, flying a six-seat Piper in England for eight minutes.

The engineering team in Everett will focus on taking a much grander step: converting to hydrogen power a 76-seat Q400 regional turboprop plane donated by Alaska Airlines, the largest aircraft yet envisaged for such a conversion.

ZeroAvia is initially leasing Snohomish County-owned warehouse and office space at the south end of the airport, said airport spokesperson Kristin Banfield.

Later however, ZeroAvia plans to move into hangar and office space across from the passenger terminal, a facility shared with Alaska Airlines.

Alaska in October agreed to donate the retired Q400 to ZeroAvia as part of its support for creating a sustainable aviation future. A spokesperson said Tuesday they expect to hand over the airplane to ZeroAvia “later this year.”

If hydrogen-powered aircraft are to work, it will take years and millions of dollars to design, produce and certify a plane that can carry passengers.

In December, ZeroAvia secured its latest round of funding with $35 million from both United Airlines and Alaska Air. That brought the company’s total funding to $115 million, with previous investments from venture capital funds including Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and others.

Led by Russian-born Val Miftakhov, formerly of Google and consulting firm McKinsey, ZeroAvia also received a U.K. government grant.

Paul Eremenko, CEO of Los Angeles-based startup Universal Hydrogen, has a similar goal and plans to convert a smaller 50-seat regional jet to hydrogen power at Moses Lake in central Washington. In an interview last summer, Eremenko estimated he will have to spend about $300 million to achieve certification of those regional jets.

These pioneers of electric and hydrogen-powered aviation must not only overcome technological barriers but also face harsh business realities.

An entire new logistics infrastructure to deliver hydrogen fuel to airports is required.

And when planes are retrofitted with the technology, a large amount of interior space is taken up with the hydrogen fuel and the cooling and control systems that integrate it with the electric motors. Universal Hydrogen’s conversion will entail tearing out 10 seats to make room for that equipment, so the plane will become a 40-seat aircraft.

It’s unclear if such hydrogen-powered planes will be able to operate economically.

Also in the Pacific Northwest, electric motor company MagniX is developing a range of electric motors for airplanes that can be retrofitted to small prop planes, including the Cessna Caravan and the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver seaplane, and to the all-new, nine-passenger Alice electric plane under development in Arlington, Snohomish County.

State Commerce Director Lisa Brown said in a statement that “support for innovation is key to transforming our legacy industries and accelerating growth of new clusters that will keep Washington’s statewide and regional economies vibrant for years to come.”

In a separate development at Paine Field, Banfield said Alaska Airlines is taking over a large hangar beside the passenger terminal that was vacated last year by airplane maintenance and repair firm ATS. Alaska plans to do maintenance there on the Embraer E175 regional jets it flies out of the airport.