Val Miftakhov is a serial clean energy entrepreneur, and his latest enterprise, ZeroAvia, has come out of its hangar in Hollister, California, and into the public eye.
A year and a half ago, Miftakhov founded ZeroAvia to develop a solution to fit a particular aviation market niche—10 to 20 seats and a 500-nm trip radius—that would target a significant customer base. The Princeton-educated physicist knew from his previous company, eMotorWerks (which focused on land-based electric vehicles), that an electric battery-powered airplane of that size was still far out on the horizon, given current restrictions on energy density. “[We’re] not doing it with batteries anytime soon—it’s so far out a significant breakthrough would be required,” said Miftakhov in an interview with Flying.
The better path? Hydrogen. “We zoomed in on a hydrogen-cell powertrain.” For an initial testbed, Miftakhov chose a Piper Matrix—smaller than the goal, but with three advantages. First of all, it was an existing, known quantity. Miftakhov is a fixed- and rotor-wing pilot himself, so he had great familiarity with the Piper series. Second, “it’s a pretty efficient airframe,” he said. It’s also a sizable one, and able to fit the systems needed to make for a good testing platform.
The powerplant installed in the Matrix features two motors in line on the single shaft, with two sets of fuel cell stacks and associated equipment. Test flights began in February when the company gained an Experimental category designation, and 10 flights total have been completed so far under battery power, all in the vicinity of the Hollister Municipal Airport. Taxi tests with the integrated hydrogen tanks are currently underway.
The results so far have matched the stock Matrix performance numbers in terms of speed (152 kias) and energy use (even a little better, says Miftakhov). They’ll use the long-distance tanks to increase the airplane’s range up to 300 nm. At that point, they’ll move to a larger airframe.
For the time being, Miftakhov speculates that ZeroAvia has the largest zero-emissions aircraft in the air—that he knows of. The price point for the powerplant will be in the same ballpark as the engine it intends to replace: the Pratt & Whitney PT-6. Operating costs are expected to be significantly lower—up to a factor of three.
Infrastructure also figures into the plan. Miftakhov indicates that ZeroAvia will orchestrate the distribution, but it will be supported by fuel providers at the anticipated 500 airports necessary upon full deployment. Fortunately, hydrogen is already produced on an industrial scale, and the company is in discussions with at least one major potential partner who is currently in the aviation fuel business.
Miftakhov envisions the first in-service flights to take place between two key points—an airport in the Los Angeles area to one near San Francisco. They’re a California-based company, after all.