EVERETT — After a nationwide search, an aerospace company that is developing a hydrogen-powered aircraft motor has chosen Paine Field to set up shop.
ZeroAvia, which currently has offices in London and in Hollister, California, plans to invest $5.5 million to ready an Everett site for a team of 20 design and software engineers.
To kickstart the effort, the Washington State Department of Commerce awarded the company a $350,000 grant to convert a warehouse at the Snohomish County-owned airport into a research-and-development facility.
“Paine Field was an obvious choice for us,” said Val Miftakhov, a physicist who founded ZeroAvia in 2017. “Working from this location, ZeroAvia is well positioned among one of the most talented aerospace and clean-energy communities worldwide.”
He said the grant “closed a gap” to build out the aged facility.
Snohomish County is home to more than 500 aerospace companies. The cluster generates more than $60 billion in annual revenues and supports 159,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to Economic Alliance Snohomish County.
In the past year or so, a small but growing number of firms focused on sustainable aviation fuels, including magniX in Everett and Eviation Aircraft in Arlington, have come to call Snohomish County home. magniX and Eviation have built, and hope to test fly, a fully electric nine-seat commuter airplane.
The race is on to reduce or eliminate the airline industry’s reliance on conventional petroleum-based fuels. So far, hydrogen-powered and electric-powered aircraft have emerged as the most promising technologies.
Aviation is responsible for 9% of transportation emissions in the United States and 3% of the nation’s greenhouse gas production, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Passenger and cargo airlines have taken up the cause and are seeking to speed the development of sustainable aviation fuels that can reduce or eliminate the industry’s massive carbon footprint.
Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, DHL Express, FedEx and Amazon Air — to name a few carriers — are investing in cleaner technologies.
In October, members of the International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents more than 200 of the world’s largest airlines, committed to net-zero aircraft emissions by 2050.
ZeroAvia’s new Everett facility at the southern end of the airfield puts it in close proximity to Seattle-based Alaska Airlines.
Engineers at Alaska and ZeroAvia are designing a hydrogen fuel-electric propulsion system large enough to power a 76-seat De Havilland Q400 turboprop aircraft for some 500 miles, the company said. Alaska’s regional subsidiary, Horizon Air, uses that plane to serve many big and small Northwest airports.
Hydrogen can either be burned as a fuel in a jet engine or it can be used to power a hydrogen fuel cell, which uses chemical energy to produce electricity.
ZeroAvia’s engine and powertrain are built around renewable hydrogen that is stored in tanks. During flight, fuel cells convert the stored hydrogen to electricity, which powers the airplane’s electric motors.
With a zero-emission hydrogen-electric propulsion system, the only byproduct is water vapor, the company said.
United Airlines and Alaska Airlines’ parent company, Alaska Air Group, recently committed $35 million to invest in ZeroAvia. Other investors include British Airways, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
ZeroAvia said it achieved a significant milestone last year with a successful test flight of the “world’s largest commercial-scale hydrogen-electric aircraft,” the company said. In a demonstration flight at Cranfield Airport, 50 miles north of London, in September 2020, pilots test-flew a modified six-seat Piper Malibu Mirage for eight minutes.
The company hopes to produce a hydrogen-electric powertrain with a 570-mile range by 2024 that can power a 10- to 20-seat aircraft. By 2026, it hopes to scale up the propulsion system to support a 50- to 80-seat aircraft.
Should ZeroAvia or another company achieve success, the market potential is huge: Nearly half of all scheduled commercial flights are 500 miles or less, according to OAG, an aviation and travel data firm.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who approved the $350,000 Governor’s Strategic Reserve Fund Grant, said the arrival of ZeroAvia makes the state’s clean energy and clean aviation future “stronger.” The fund is competitive and can be used for workforce development, planning or technical assistance, or relocation assistance.
“This project is an important part of Snohomish County’s continuing efforts to maintain a competitive edge and strengthen the community with good jobs in the aerospace industry of the future,” Inslee said. “It enables advances in manufacturing and exploring opportunities for cleaner aircraft fuel.”
The company has secured experimental certificates for two prototype aircraft from the Federal Aviation Administration and the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Economic Alliance Snohomish County, the county’s economic development organization, will administer the Governor’s Strategic Reserve Fund award on behalf of the state.
“ZeroAvia is exactly the type of company that Snohomish County wants to attract, because they are innovators, job-creators, part of our growing green economy, and the reason we are the aerospace capital of the world,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. “This addition to our aerospace cluster at Paine Field will help expand our already impressive cutting-edge base of technology companies.”