In the shadow of Airbus, the battle for hydrogen-powered aircraft

In the great race toward hydrogen-powered aircraft, there are two main types of competitors. Heavyweights like the giant Airbus, which hopes to launch a device powered by liquid hydrogen from 2035. And a plethora of lesser-known players, but not necessarily less ambitious. Among these, the American startup ZeroAvia, founded in 2017, already appears as one of the favorites of the competition. Supported since 2020 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the Californian group raised again, last December, 35 million dollars from United Airlines and Alaska Airlines, raising its total fundraising in US$ 115 million.

American start-ups, first on the track

The American start-up is developing a system to turn combustion-powered aircraft into devices powered by a fuel cell. The first flight of a Dornier 328 modified in this way is scheduled for the coming weeks, which will pave the way for the commercialization of a first zero-emission aircraft with 10 to 20 seats from 2024, then regional aircraft with 40 to 80 seats between 2026 and 2028, including a Dash 8 regional jet converted to hydrogen. “The challenge is enormous, it will take decades to convert all devices,” acknowledged in late March on Bloomberg TV the company’s founder and general manager, Val Miftakhov. ZeroAvia, which has installed most of its teams in England, is obviously not alone in this niche.

In 2020, the start-up saw the arrival of another ambitious youngster, Universal Hydrogen, launched by former Airbus technical director Paul Eremenko. Like its rival, the Californian company offers to convert conventional aircraft into hydrogen, but with an innovation that it considers decisive to establish itself in the market: a system of hydrogen capsules, which is installed in the rear fuselage of existing aircraft, replacing three rows. of seats. The principle of these capsules is plug & play: they can be easily replaced between each flight. Empty capsules are inspected and refilled. “We are the hydrogen Nespresso capsule”, summarizes Paul Eremenko. The start-up focuses on converting two regional aircraft models: the Canadian De Havilland’s Dash 8 and the French-Italian manufacturer ATR’s ATR 72.

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