THE world’s largest hydrogen-fuelled zero emission aircraft - flying without any fossil fuel support - is to be tested in Scotland next year with a target of the first commercial flights in three years.

California-based ZeroAvia is in discussions with the Scottish Government, which has a programme to decarbonise scheduled flights, over the potential of the technology as it prepares for the longest-range test flights in Orkney this summer.

It is claimed it creates the first opportunity for commercialisation of zero emission flight, so far stymied by the limitations of battery-powered planes, reducing both pollution within aviation and across other transport modes.

READ MORE: Glasgow endorses hydrogen power as it turns its fleet green​

The enterprise, which already has £2.75 million funding from the UK Government, is the brainchild of the Russian-born physicist Val Miftakhov, who will test the flights himself.

In an exclusive interview with The Herald, greentech entrepreneur and eMotorWerks founder Mr Miftakhov reveals the £5m HyFlyer project is a key step on ZeroAvia’s journey towards supplying to commercial operators and aircraft manufacturers in 2022, initially targeting up to 500-mile regional flights in 10 to 20-seat fixed-wing aircraft.

The Herald:

Above: Initial tests carried out in California by Mr Miftakhov.​

He said the 500-mile short-haul and commuter air travel markets make up nearly half of commercial flights worldwide.

ZeroAvia’s solution claims to deliver the same performance as a conventional aircraft engine, but with zero carbon emissions and at around half of the operating costs. Mr Miftakhov said producing hydrogen at airports by electrolysis using local sustainable energy removes costs, transport and emissions.

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It is hoped a 50-80 seat aircraft would be developed four years after the first commercial flights take off. ZeroAvia started flight testing its “powertrain” prototype in a Piper M-Class airframe in California and further tests will be carried out at Cranfield Airport in Bedfordshire before 300-mile endurance tests start in Orkney.

At a two-ton take-off weight and six seats in a business-class arrangement, it is the world’s largest zero emission aircraft flying without any fossil fuel support. Its zero emission aircraft will be able to achieve similar per-seat economics as large regional jets, allowing economical use of smaller local airports for point-to-point travel with virtually no security lines or delays, and “a much more pleasant overall flying experience” with less noise and no fumes.

The Herald:

Above: Refuelling is swift, says ZeroAvia.

Mr Miftakhov said: “Our project goal of 300 nautical miles is equivalent to the distance from London to Edinburgh and will prove that zero emission aviation, powered by hydrogen, can play a key role within the UK and other countries’ transport strategies, enabling net zero targets to be met and improving productivity and regional prosperity.

“The whole story is about zero emission end to end, so what we are hoping to do is produce hydrogen through electrolysis of water, ideally on site, so at the airport we would have the electrolysis station - which is a relatively small set of devices - and source the energy for it, the electricity, from local renewable power plants, whether it is solar plants or wind or hydro.

“So renewable power goes into electrolysis on site to produce hydrogen, and that way we are avoiding all transportation losses and all transportation emissions and costs.”

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Mr Miftakhov continued: "There is significant interest on the fuelling side from the infrastructure players and a good number are looking at investing into our company.

“Let’s say for an airport like Edinburgh we have maybe 20 or 15 per cent of its capacity using hydrogen fuel, at that point it will be cheaper than jet fuel.

"So not only is it zero emission but it will also be cheaper to operate than today’s aircraft and that is what makes us really excited and the Government as well."

He said demonstration flights in some target territories would follow “where we work with operators, like Loganair for example, and say ‘you run these flights from Kirkwall to Edinburgh and we want to demonstrate how we can do that with very fast refuelling times which is a big advantage over battery you can refuel similar to how you refuel jet flights’”.

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Initial target markets include Scotland and the UK, Norway, the south wester US, and Australia.

He also said offsetting provides further opportunities: “We can see it scaling on its own merits and not requiring continuous money pumping in from the government or taxes or carbon trade schemes, it is just going to make sense economically.

“Whatever incentives are added on top of it makes it even better.

“Like in California for example, and we just talked with a big aviation operator, and they’re pushing for the introduction of the smaller concepts.

“In California we have low carbon fuel standards which California Air Resource Board set up the programme where if you are seller of high carbon fuel, if you are Shell for example, you have to obtain certain number of credits.

“Those credits are produced by the sellers of low carbon fuel, like us, or like my previous company which was doing the charging systems for electric cars.

“So we would get the credits and on the open market we would trade those credits, sell them to Shell, sell them to Chevron, to BP, and that actually amounts in the case of hydrogen aviation to an additional dollar and a half per gallon of jet fuel back to credit."

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He said: "So with a programme like this if it stays around could provide a net zero cost of fuel at scale.

“If you’re an airline and you’re not paying anything on a net basis for fuel, what could be better?

“So that’s the big deal here."

He said it is "economically advantageous for an operator to shift over".

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “Scotland is an ideal testing ground for new zero emission aircraft and we welcome ZeroAvia’s interest in Orkney.

“We recognise the challenge of aviation emissions and also recognise that air travel continues to be an important mode of transport for our island communities and connectivity with the rest of the world.

“As a result, we committed through the Programme for Government to decarbonise scheduled flights within Scotland by 2040.

“This will position Scotland at the forefront of innovation in advanced aerospace technologies, including hydrogen developments, and is a visible sign of our commitment to greener travel and tourism.”

Nadhim Zahawi, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and  Industrial Strategy, said: “The development of a practical alternative to fossil fuels within aviation has the potential to revolutionise domestic travel not just in the UK, but globally.”

As part of the project, ZeroAvia is partnering with some of the most innovative technology, advanced manufacturing, energy and aviation companies in the UK, including the European Marine Energy Centre which will will investigate the infrastructure needed to fuel the aircraft with green hydrogen, initially on Orkney with a view to replicating this infrastructure across other airports over time.

EMEC produces green hydrogen from wind and tidal energy and are driving the development of a hydrogen economy on Orkney, decarbonising power, heat and transport.

Market leading fuel cell engineering company Intelligent Energy will collaborate with ZeroAvia on the optimisation of its evaporative cooling fuel cell technology for aviation use cases, and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions will assist with integrating ZeroAvia’s powertrain into the Piper airframe and host the team at its hangar facilities.

ZeroAvia will also form a technology partnership with Cranfield University, one of the leading aerospace universities worldwide, as well as working with advisory and investment firm SystemIQ.