A new com­pa­ny that aims to build and sell planes that run on hydro­gen-pow­ered elec­tric­i­ty emerged from stealth Wednes­day. ZeroAvia, based in Hol­lis­ter, Calif., claims its planes will be cheap­er to man­u­fac­ture and fly than stan­dard jet fuel-pow­ered vehi­cles, while also pro­duc­ing none of the car­bon emis­sions that make the avi­a­tion indus­try one of the worst pol­luters.

ZeroAvia plans to ini­tial­ly tar­get small planes of 10–20 seats that fly short, region­al hops of up to 500 miles. The com­pa­ny has con­duct­ed a num­ber of suc­cess­ful flight tests using its pro­to­type in a Piper M‑class air­frame. At a 2‑ton take­off weight and six seats in a busi­ness-class arrange­ment, the pro­to­type is cur­rent­ly the world’s largest zero-emis­sion air­craft fly­ing with­out any fos­sil fuel sup­port, accord­ing to the com­pa­ny.

The Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Admin­is­tra­tion autho­rized ZeroAvia to oper­ate its pro­to­type for test flights ear­li­er this year. Since then, the air­craft has com­plet­ed a vari­ety of test flights, which val­i­dat­ed key com­po­nents and their inte­gra­tion into a com­plete pow­er­train sys­tem. These tests con­firm the company’s “fuel” econ­o­my and max­i­mum pow­er deliv­ery tar­gets.

The idea of elec­tric-pow­ered flight has been around for decades, but only recent­ly has it begun to take off. There are over a dozen star­tups and com­pa­nies today that are pur­su­ing bat­tery-elec­tric and hybrid pro­to­types, and some are even sug­gest­ing that we could all be nib­bling on pret­zels and scrolling through in-flight enter­tain­ment from with­in zero-emis­sion, bat­tery-pow­ered air­craft some­time in the next decade.

The ques­tion is, what kind of pow­er­train will spur the air­planes of the future? Most elec­tric cars use lithi­um-ion bat­ter­ies, but a few automak­ers offer hydro­gen-pow­ered dri­ve­trains. Hydro­gen is the most abun­dant ele­ment in the uni­verse, so its appeal to the fos­sil fuel-addict­ed auto and aero­space indus­tries is obvi­ous. Hydro­gen fuel cells use com­pressed hydro­gen as their fuel and release only water vapor. The tech­nol­o­gy has been in devel­op­ment for decades.

But fly­ing requires an incred­i­ble amount of ener­gy, and present­ly, bat­ter­ies are too heavy and too expen­sive to achieve liftoff. The tech­nol­o­gy that allows Tes­la to squeeze 300 miles of range out of a Mod­el 3 or Chevy to get 200 miles out of the Bolt isn’t enough to pow­er more than a two-seater air­craft with a flight range lim­it­ed to only a few miles.

The busi­ness of elec­tric flight is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult, too. Zunum Aero, a start­up backed by Boe­ing and Jet­Blue, recent­ly laid off dozens of employ­ees and brought its oper­a­tions to a halt after its cof­fers ran dry, accord­ing to Forbes. Zunum’s busi­ness plan was very sim­i­lar to ZeroAvia: small, nine- to 12-seat planes mak­ing short, region­al trips.

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