Alaska Airlines has provided ZeroAvia with a Bombadier Q-400 to test out its hydrogen-powered electric propulsion system. The plane is now emblazoned with ZeroAvia navy and sky blue graphics and Alaska Airlines’ name on the tail. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

The Paris Air Show is taking place this week and the event kicked off with news from two sustainable aviation ventures that are expanding their efforts in Washington state.

ZeroAvia, a hydrogen-powered aviation startup, announced it’s growing its research and development capabilities at its facility at Everett’s Paine Field. The state’s Department of Commerce is awarding ZeroAvia a $350,000 grant to support the work, doubling the state’s investment to date. Last month, the company celebrated a partnership with Alaska Airlines to retrofit a retired plane with its propulsion system.

Sustainable aviation fuel startup Twelve shared news that it’s building a commercial-scale production facility in Moses Lake in Eastern Washington. Twelve produces a synthetic jet fuel using water and carbon dioxide — drawing parallels to photosynthesis. It powers its process with renewable energy, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 90% compared to conventional fossil fuels.

The air show in Le Bourget, France, runs all week and a Washington delegation of nearly two-dozen companies and organizations are in attendance to promote the state’s role in sustainable aviation and to woo new ventures interested in landing in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s tech that’s in demand worldwide. Two years ago, a global coalition of commercial airlines committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, while shipping companies and others likewise aspire to slash emissions.

“We recognize that this is going to be incredibly challenging, but it is achievable and we are absolutely determined to do everything we can to achieve that goal,” said Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, addressing a Boeing-led conference near Seattle this spring.

Greening aviation is so difficult because no alternatives come close to the affordability, availability, weight and sheer amount of energy contained in the petroleum fuels that power most planes. Carbon cutting strategies include:

  • Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF): These fuels are made from feedstock materials such as waste vegetable oils, agricultural and forestry debris, crops, and sewage and dairy waste.
  • Hydrogen: This fuel can be produced from multiple sources, including water and methane, and burned directly or in fuel cells.
  • Batteries: This option is currently limited to smaller aircraft flying shorter distances given batteries’ “energy density,” or weight relative to the power generated.
  • Changes in materials and operations: Boeing won a $425 million, seven-year grant from NASA to develop and test fuel-efficient airplanes with ultra-thin wings. Airlines, cargo companies and others are adjusting flight plans to reduce fuel use.
  • Contrail research: Contrails, the ice particle clouds created by engine exhaust, are a wildcard. The Contrail Impact Task Force formed last year to study the impacts and opportunities to reduce contrails.

It’s a lot to consider. Boeing last month released a free tool called the Cascade Climate Impact Model to help companies explore the cost-benefit trade offs for different paths to reducing carbon emissions — potentially with the hope the solutions include its aircraft.

Many established aerospace interests are leaning toward SAF, particularly in the near term. The fuel can be blended with current jet fuel and used in existing aircraft. Boeing officials call SAF “the biggest lever” for cutting aviation carbon. But the fuel is in limited supply, amounting to well under 1% of the total jet fuel now available.

Jonathan Geurkink, senior emerging tech analyst for PitchBook, is inclined to agree that SAF is the best bet — at least for now. “For a lot of different reasons, [it’s a] plug-and-play kind of solution today,” Guerkink said. “We don’t want to scrap all these airplanes suddenly.”

The Boeing plant at Snohomish County’s Paine Field in 2019. The county and Washington State University aim to open a research and development center in the area that’s focused on sustainable aviation fuel. (Matt Kieffer / Creative Commons Photo)

In addition to Twelve’s announced expansion in Moses Lake, the company last year signed a memorandum of understanding with Alaska Air and Microsoft to back the startup’s development of its technology. Alaska plans to test Twelve’s fuel in one of its aircraft, while Microsoft hopes to pay for its use to offset employee travel.

Other support is lining up locally for the sector. This spring, Washington lawmakers approved funding to create a sustainable aviation fuel R&D center at Paine Field, and they passed a bill creating a tax incentive for locally produced SAF. The Dutch firm SkyNRG announced in May it would build a biogas plant in Washington to produce sustainable aviation fuel.

“If incentives are aligned appropriately, there is feedstock, there’s technology — all the things that are in place to produce sustainable aviation fuel,” said John Dees, a senior decarbonization scientist with Carbon Direct. “It’s a cost question. It remains more expensive.”

While SAF has a head start in cleaner aviation, multiple ventures are pursuing alternative fuel solutions. In the Pacific Northwest that includes:

  • ZeroAvia, which is based in California and the United Kingdom and has R&D operations in Everett.
  • Universal Hydrogen, a California company partnering with Seattle-based AeroTEC and Everett-based MagniX to develop its aircraft. In March, Universal Hydrogen conducted a test flight at Moses Lake of its hydrogen-powered electric propulsion system mounted on a plane dubbed Lightning McClean.
  • Eviation, an Arlington, Wash.-based company that successfully performed a test flight of its all-electric Alice airplane in Moses Lake in September 2022.
  • Zeva Aero, a Tacoma, Wash.-based personal aviation startup whose planned products include battery-powered aircraft.

But just as SAF is in limited supply, so too is clean hydrogen fuel. And hydrogen is costly and difficult to transport, leading some to explore the option of producing it close to where it’s used. Battery-powered flight will need to keep making progress on weight issues.

“There’s a lot of good reasons to think that it’s going to be a little while before hydrogen and batteries are really viable. It’s not just a question of does it work in the plane, there’s a lot of infrastructure the airports would need to adopt,” Dees said.

But even with the hurdles, he added, hydrogen and batteries are “where things will go.”

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