Illustration: Ben Boothman

In 1903, The New York Times predicted it would take between 1 million and 10 million years to develop airplanes. The Wright Brothers took flight just nine weeks later. In 2023, the same levels of ambition, determination, and innovation will make green flight a reality, and the first commercial passenger planes fueled by hydrogen will take to the skies.

Aviation is the world’s fastest-growing contributor to climate change. According to a report by the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation, by 2037 we will see an estimated doubling of air passengers to 8.2 billion. And by 2050, the sector could be responsible for as much as 22 percent of our total carbon emissions. We know that we have to cut global emissions in half by 2030—and that means addressing the rising contribution of the aviation sector, and quickly.

My company, ZeroAvia, is tackling the transition to zero-emission aviation through the development of hydrogen-electric engines for airplanes. These use hydrogen in fuel cells to generate electricity, which is then used to power electric motors to turn the aircraft’s propellers. Ultimately, we will put these engines in every type of aircraft—all the way up to large, commercial aircraft.

Why fuel cells? According to McKinsey, electric flight powered by hydrogen offers the best possible reduction in climate impact. Hydrogen fuel cells are between two and three times more energy efficient than current gas-guzzling fuel combustion engines. And the sole byproduct from these engines is water.

Alternatives, such as sustainable aviation fuel, do not tackle the problem of non-carbon emissions. Nitrogen oxides, particulates, soot, and high-temperature water vapor are all potent climate forcing agents. Combined, these have a larger climate change impact than carbon dioxide does alone. But for hydrogen-electric engines, they do not enter the equation.

What about batteries? Too heavy and too inefficient. Research from the University of Houston suggests eight airplanes would be required to carry the batteries needed to power a jumbo jet. What works for a Tesla doesn’t necessarily work for a Dreamliner.

Hydrogen is also abundant—as it can be produced from water—and it will only become cheaper to produce. According to PWC, the cost of green hydrogen will drop by 50 percent by 2030. On-site hydrogen production further lowers prices and makes the entire system zero-emission from end to end.

In 2023, we will finalize the design for the world’s first commercial hydrogen-electric aircraft engine, and we plan to enter the market by the following year. This will unlock commercial zero-emission flights of up to 300 miles, say, London to Glasgow, or San Francisco to Los Angeles. As well as powering new aircraft, hydrogen-electric engines can also be retro-fitted into existing planes, ensuring rapid market entry and enabling us to tackle the sector’s emissions sooner.

While converting the entire industry will take time, the road map is obvious. The UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute’s FlyZero project made it clear that hydrogen will be aviation’s fuel of the future. This year-long independent study commissioned by the UK government established that the first generation of zero-emission aircraft would need to include hydrogen technology by 2025.

Airbus is developing its own hydrogen-powered ZEROe concept aircraft and teaming up with Delta. Rolls-Royce is partnering with EasyJet on hydrogen combustion engines and exploring hydrogen fuel cells. Boeing is also beginning to embrace hydrogen’s potential, having run the first tests back in 2008.

The world’s biggest problem requires the farthest-reaching solutions, and support for hydrogen is growing in governments globally. Measures in the US Inflation Reduction Act will turbocharge the hydrogen economy, while the UK’s Jet Zero strategy aims to deliver net-zero aviation by the middle of the century. In 2023, accelerating innovation will meet this increasing political will, and hydrogen electricity will start the process of transforming aviation into a zero-emissions industry in a generation.


Val Miftakhov is founder and CEO of ZeroAvia.