Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO of ZeroAvia, on how to accelerate the transition to a zero-emission future
If the chief executive of IATA, the CTO of Airbus, and several executives of major airlines respond to your persona publicly, one could argue you have made an impression on the aviation industry.
Greta Thunberg certainly has, and the general public as been amplifying this trend.
“Aviation emissions are too high”, “Tax them”, “ban domestic flights” - all sentiments heard around the world.
And what about the general public, what does it see?
An industry that represents over 12% of the transport emissions, which in turn represent the largest share of emissions in most developed economies.
At the same time, our industry is the fastest-growing sector of all of transport, with fuel consumption – and associated emissions – growing over 5% annually, despite all the incremental efficiency improvements traditional players introduce every year.
This shows one of the inherent restrictions of the industry’s growth: yes, we do grow more and more efficiently as we operate newer and more efficient aircraft, but ultimately, at these growth rates and no decarbonisation solution in-sight, we will increasingly find ourselves as the focus of public environmental debates.
This is an especially difficult situation for me personally, as an active pilot flying both rotorcraft and fixed-wing since 2006, having spent the past seven years of my life dedicated to decarbonising road transport.
When I set out to build ZeroAvia, the mission was clear: to accelerate aviation’s transition to a zero-emission future. When our team started to look at the options to decarbonise aviation, none of the currently discussed options convinced me.
Bio- and synthetic fuels are the aviation’s industry standard response next to efficiency improvements and carbon offsets. However, they are very expensive at three to six times the cost of jet fuel, have limited potential to reduce costs, only deliver a maximum of 80% carbon reductions on a life cycle basis, do very little to particulate and NOX emissions, and raise their own questions on sustainability and scalability.
On the other hand, I have witnessed first-hand, the impact electrification can have on mobility through founding and scaling eMotorWerks - the leading smart EV charging company. Electrifying aviation is the logical next frontier, but energy storage is much more challenging in the air than on land. Realistically, battery-powered aircraft will not be able to power any significant segment of aviation in the near-to-mid-term.
Extending battery range by hybridising with a jet turbine is possible, but is hard to scale to larger aircraft, has unclear net benefits due to higher weight and complexity, and of course cannot be zero emission.
After thoroughly exploring all these options, it was clear that the most practical approach to decarbonising existing aviation segments is to use hydrogen as an energy storage medium to then power an electric propulsion system.
Our focus is starting to pay off - we already have the largest zero emission demonstrator aircraft in the air (six seats, flying since Feb 2019), and are confident for the journey ahead. By the end of 2022, we will power 10-20 seat aircraft for up to 500 miles with our powertrain, enabling not only zero emission but also cheaper operations.
Thanks to lower fuel costs, especially in regions like the Middle East with its vast renewable and cost-effective electricity sources, and lower maintenance needs, we can achieve up to 40 per cent reductions in operating costs for operators running commuter passenger services, cargo, air taxi, and even agricultural operations.
Airbus CTO, Grazia Vittadini hoped that Greta Thunberg will one day fly in a low-emission aircraft from Airbus. Now, we can cross out the “one day” and promise she can do so in three short years.
“Our industry is the fastest-growing sector of all of transport, with fuel consumption – and associated emissions – growing over 5% annually, despite all the incremental efficiency improvements traditional players introduce every year.”
October 2019 · AVIATION BUSINESS