De­car­bon­is­ing Avi­a­tion

Val Mif­takhov, founder and CEO of ZeroAvia, on how to ac­cel­er­ate the tran­si­tion to a zero-emis­sion fu­ture

Aviation Business - - DEPARTURE LOUNGE -

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.”

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