EVERETT — Keys to city, keys to the car. It’s not every day someone is handed the keys to a commercial airplane, but that’s what happened Monday at Paine Field.
Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci turned over the keys to a 76-seat Bombardier Q400 to Val Miftakhov, CEO of ZeroAvia.
The big turboprop, tail number N441QX, is a former Alaska Airlines commercial passenger plane. Now painted blue and white, it was emblazoned with a “Powered by ZeroAvia” livery and the words, “Zero Emissions.”
The aircraft, also known as a Dash 8-400, will be retrofitted with a hydrogen-electric propulsion system.
ZeroAvia is developing a hydrogen fuel-electric propulsion system large enough to power the Bombardier and other aircraft of its size some 500 miles. The London-based company hopes to debut a commercial version by 2028.
“Our next regional airplanes are going to be green,” Minicucci said.
Alaska’s regional subsidiary, Horizon Air, operates a fleet of Dash 8s that serve large and small airports in the Northwest.
Alaska Air Group, Alaska Airline’s parent company, is an investor in the aerospace company.
Other ZeroAvia investors include British Airways, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
ZeroAvia, which has offices in London and Hollister, California, recently opened a research and development center at Paine Field. Founded in 2018, the aerospace company received a $350,000 Washington State Department of Commerce grant last year to remodel a warehouse at the southern end of the airfield.
More than 100 people, including Gov. Jay Inslee, Democratic U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers and Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin gathered inside a hangar at the Snohomish County-owned airport to witness the hand off.
“Isn’t it great the world’s largest commercial hydrogen-powered aircraft is being developed here in Washington state,” Inslee told the crowd. “A super shout out to Alaska Airlines for the use of their airplane.”
The Seattle-based airline has pledged to eliminate its carbon emissions by 2040.
Monday’s event included a short, runway demonstration of the company’s ZA2000 power train. The propeller and motor assembly were mounted on a truck.
“This is the propulsion system that will be used for this Q400 aircraft and similar aircraft,” CEO Miftakhov said. “This is a full-size propeller and the propulsion system is able to deliver full power to the aircraft.”
At 107 feet in length, the Dash 8 is about the size of a 76-seat Embraer-175, which Horizon Air operates on many of its routes to and from the Everett passenger terminal.
DelBene called the partnership “critical to moving toward a cleaner energy economy.”
For 14-year-old Sydney Bottorff, a student at Raisbeck Aviation High School in Tukwila, it was “exciting to be a part of a piece of history.”
“This is a big deal,” said Bottorff, who was joined by about 20 of her classmates.
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 power train 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.
The company hopes to produce a hydrogen-electric power train with a 570-mile range by 2025 that can power a 10- to 20-seat aircraft.
By 2028, it hopes to scale up the propulsion system to support a 50- to 80-seat aircraft, such as the Dash 8.
“You need need to get away from combustion and the only way to do that is to electrify the airplane,” Miftakhov said. “Batteries do not have enough energy to power an aircraft like this one for hundreds and hundreds of miles, so you need to use a different energy carrier to produce electricity and hydrogen is the best fuel to use.”
Should ZeroAvia or another company achieve success, the market potential is huge: Nearly half of all scheduled commercial flights are 500 miles or fewer, according to OAG, an aviation and travel data firm.
About one-third of Alaska Airline flights are regional flights with a 500-mile range, the company said.
Earlier this year, ZeroAvia completed a 10-minute test flight of a 19-seat, twin engine turboprop at Cotswold Airport in Gloucestershire, England. The Dornier 228 was retrofitted with a prototype hydrogen-electric power train on the left wing
ZeroAvia said that the test flight represented “the largest aircraft in the world to be powered by a hydrogen-electric engine.”
In recent years, a small but growing number of firms focused on sustainable aviation fuels, including magniX in Everett and Eviation Aircraft in Arlington, have located in Snohomish County. magniX and Eviation built a fully electric nine-seat commuter airplane and conducted an eight-minute test flight last fall.
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.
Janice Podsada: 425-339-3097; email@example.com;
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