- Without a shadow of a doubt, it is flying in our six-seat plane on hydrogen-electric power. We went from concept to show it’s possible, and I lived every second of that demonstration aboard!
- As we scale to larger aircraft, we have stricter criteria on test pilots and individuals aboard, and not even the CEO gets to pull rank there. Quite rightly, we have to do everything by the book with the regulator to ensure safety and a smooth path to certification.
- That early flight might be the most visceral for me in terms of our world firsts, but I think I will feel equally excited by watching the next one from the ground, given the massive and rapid jump in scale.
- Given our vision is a hydrogen-electric engine in every aircraft, the career highlight I am saving up for is when I can pilot a plane knowing it is entirely zero-emission thanks to the work of ZeroAvia.
What is your field of expertise?
By training, I am a physicist. I was a nuclear researcher at Stanford Linear Accelerator, and I have a Ph.D. in Physics from Princeton University. I was also a two-time winner of the Russian Nationwide Physics competition.
After leaving academia, I held several senior business and product positions at Google and McKinsey & Company. So I cut my teeth in the tech and business worlds, giving me great insight into how to scale a company before I had to do it for myself.
I then moved into the EV space with my previous startup company, eMotorWerks. We developed the world’s leading platform for EV battery aggregation to grid services before the company was acquired in 2017.
Building off that experience and my passion for flying, it was a perfect fit to start looking at aviation. It is one of the most challenging sectors to tackle for climate change impact, but it is possible with engineering excellence, and that’s why I founded ZeroAvia. We focus on providing true zero-emission solutions for aviation by developing hydrogen-electric power technology for both new and existing aircraft.
Describe your journey to where you are today.
I started ZeroAvia because I was passionate about aviation. It’s been my hobby for over a decade, and I hold licenses to pilot both airplanes and helicopters. After building eMotorWerks, a smart-grid EV charging company, and selling it to Enel’s international energy company, I set out to tackle what I see as the next big problem in the electrification of transportation – aviation.
We probably started with a slight bias for battery-electric, given our EV experience. Still, on review, it is evident that hydrogen-electric, using fuel cell technology, was the only practical, scalable solution. Hydrogen has 100 times more energy density than the best lithium-ion batteries and provides the lowest operating costs. The energy-to-weight ratio of batteries that creates range anxiety in electric vehicles is exacerbated in aviation – battery-electric flight cannot be expected to tackle any meaningful payload or distance for commercial flight. Additionally, aircraft designs with just batteries have a limited lifecycle due to rapid charging and discharging events, with huge costs.
So we identified three things. Firstly, if reducing aviation’s climate change impact is the goal, we must eliminate carbon emissions and tackle all other climate-forcing emissions. Secondly, combustion of any type, however efficient, cannot tackle the non-CO2 environmental impacts or remove CO2 emissions in the air, thus indicating that electrification is the only route forward for true zero-emission aviation. Thirdly, batteries are fundamentally not viable for commercial-scale aviation, so hydrogen-electric (using fuel cell power) is the only way to deliver electric aviation.
With this in mind, we started a program to test a six-seat aircraft using a hydrogen-electric powertrain with this in mind. Not only did we make aviation history in flying the world’s first commercial-scale hydrogen-electric aircraft, but we went on to fly 35 test flights – each time setting new milestones.
We are well advanced with our next-level powertrain and expect to flight test a 19 seat Dornier 228 aircraft in the coming weeks.
But it is not just demonstrations, and commercial traction is starting to build. We are working with several airlines and manufacturers to incorporate our technology into regional operations. We just announced deals with United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, ASL Airlines, HAL, MHIRJ, and several other notable organizations helping us propel our innovation forward and into the skies.
What does your company do, for whom, and how does it fit into the bigger picture of solving global issues with clean tech?
Our mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable aviation by designing and building hydrogen-electric powertrains for aircraft – by retrofitting existing aircraft in service and also working with manufacturers on incorporating this technology into new airframes. We currently target short-haul trips of up to 500 miles in aircraft that can seat up to 19-20 passengers, with commercial production to start by 2024. We are focused on addressing a variety of flights used in commercial passenger transport, cargo, and agriculture.
We also want to support airports with the deployment of on-site hydrogen production (electrolysis powered by zero-emission energy sources like renewables) to ensure the maximum cost and environmental efficiency of deploying our solution.
Our technology will help decarbonize one of the most challenging sectors. Studies suggest that aviation accounts for 12% of transportation emissions. And with aviation being on track to burn nearly 100 billion gallons of fuel per year and jet fuel representing 9% of fossil fuels used in the United States alone, this is a critical time to start transitioning away from fossil fuels. Aviation is one of the most difficult sectors in which to abate carbon emissions and, while only 3% of global emissions at pre-pandemic levels, this could rise as high as 50% by 2050 as other sectors decarbonize.
It also goes beyond CO2 impact. Consensus is building that non-CO2 emissions in aviation have at least the same climate change impact as CO2 emissions alone, and could have as much as twice the impact. Our technology will tackle climate emissions from aviation in addition to other non-CO2 emissions (NOx, SOx, particulates, and high-temperature water vapor).
What do you wish you could tell the younger you — what would’ve been incredibly helpful to you ten years ago?
Swing for the fences and scale up sooner.
LinkedIn: Val Miftakhov