Aviation startup ZeroAvia, backed by Amazon and Alaska Air, is constructing an R&D heart close to Seattle

An artist’s rendition of an Alaska Airlines aircraft outfitted with ZeroAvia’s hydrogen electric powertrain. (Alaska Airlines and ZeroAvia Image)

ZeroAvia, a green aviation company with backing from tech giants and major airlines, is building a research-and-development space north of Seattle at Everett’s Paine Field.

The location is notable as the home of century-old aerospace heavyweight Boeing, as well as to fellow electric plane upstart MagniX, which moved into a new manufacturing building in the area one year ago.

And it may be the start of a bigger Washington state presence for ZeroAvia. While the current project is focused on R&D, ZeroAvia will need to build a manufacturing facility in the near future in order to start rolling out its hybrid hydrogen-electric powertrains for customers in 2024.

In an interview with GeekWire, ZeroAvia CEO and founder Val Miftakhov suggested that establishing R&D operations in Everett “increases the chances so much” that a manufacturing facility could follow.

“We’re looking at the Seattle area as one of, if not the primary manufacturing hub for us in North America.”

“We’re looking at the Seattle area as one of, if not the primary manufacturing hub for us in North America,” Miftakhov said.

ZeroAvia is developing powertrains for aircraft, starting with propulsion systems for 10-to 20-seat planes with a more than 500-mile range that could be used for passengers, package delivery, agriculture and other uses. It plans to keep scaling up the size of its powertrains, with the ultimate goal of powering aircraft with more than 200 seats.

At Paine Field, the company is converting warehouse space into offices and R&D facilities. The Washington Department of Commerce awarded a $350,000 economic development grant to help fund the project. The company is spending an additional $5.5 million to refurbish the location, with more investment to come. The site will initially employ 20 to 30 people.

Val Miftakov, founder and CEO of ZeroAvia. (ZeroAvia Photo)

In Everett, ZeroAvia will be operating alongside Alaska Airlines in a space that could occupy tens of thousands of square feet. The Seattle-based airline this fall provided the startup with a De Havilland Q400 aircraft for the startup to outfit with its hydrogen-electric system for demonstration purposes. The plane can carry up to 76 passengers and was previously flown by Alaska’s subsidiary, Horizon Air.

The new R&D site will also be used for be used for developing technology and flight tests. That will include the Q400 aircraft and other technologies, Miftakhov said.

Plugging into local aerospace

There are many good reasons, Miftakhov said, for setting up shop in Snohomish County, where Everett is located. The area is home to roughly 500 companies in the aerospace industry, creating a potential source of workers and access to a developed supply chain.

The sector dates back to Boeing’s launch in Seattle in 1916. In the 1960s, the company chose Paine Field, a former wartime military base, as the assembly site for its wide-body jets. In more recent years, Boeing moved many manufacturing jobs out of state and experienced layoffs due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the grounding of the 737 MAX following two fatal crashes.

At the same time, commercial space ventures are going strong in the region, with Blue Origin’s headquarters based south of Seattle and SpaceX expanding its operations in the area.

The technology and expertise needed for spaceflight ventures overlaps with aviation, creating a fertile aerospace ecosystem, said Kristi Morgansen, chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. That could be helpful to ZeroAvia, MagniX and others.

“We have all of the foundational pieces to make any of these companies happy and successful,” Morgansen said.

Local leaders have welcomed his startup, Miftakhov said. That includes Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen and others from Snohomish County.

“Our state’s clean energy and clean aviation future just got stronger,” Inslee said in a statement announcing ZeroAvia’s new facility. “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.”

Paine Field in Everett’s Snohomish County, Wash. is a former wartime military base now home to aerospace companies and commercial flights. (Paine Field / Snohomish County Airport Photo)

Big names in the private sector are also supporters of the startup. Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Bill Gates-led Breakthrough Energy Ventures have invested in multiple venture capital rounds backing ZeroAvia. Alaska Airlines’ Alaska Air Group joined them in a VC round announced in December.

The startup has raised $115 million. Other recent investors include United Airlines, AP Ventures, Horizons Ventures, Summa Equity and Shell Ventures.

Seeking climate friendly aviation

As the world tries to slash its carbon emissions, the aerospace sector is pursuing various avenues for decarbonization. In addition to burning carbon-emitting fossil fuels, traditional aircraft produce heat-trapping nitrogen oxides and contrails. To reduce those impacts, companies are exploring alternatives including battery-powered electric aircraft and hydrogen fuel.

When it comes to greening aviation, “there is a huge push right now, so there is huge opportunity,” the UW’s Morgansen said. “The solution has not been settled in any particular direction.”

MagniX is focused on all-electric flight and recently won a $74.3 million grant from NASA to demonstrate its technology. It has a deal with Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air to create a fleet of retrofitted electric seaplanes certified for short-haul passenger flights, and partnerships with other small airlines.

In pursuing his hybrid powertrain solution, Miftakhov can tap his personal experience in electric vehicles. The Russian native founded and led eMotorWerks, a San Francisco Bay-area company that produced technology for smart EV charging. It was acquired by the multinational power company Enel.

With ZeroAvia, Miftakhov is pairing batteries with hydrogen-powered fuel cells because it creates a lighter-weight system than batteries alone and allows for longer flights.

ZeroAvia will be conducting flight tests in the United Kingdom with this 20-seat, hydrogen-electric powered plane in early 2022. (ZeroAvia Photo)

But hydrogen fuel comes with its own challenges. Hydrogen is produced through a variety of processes. The most climate friendly is “green hydrogen” that’s produced from water using renewable energy, while “gray hydrogen” is made from natural gas and carries a carbon footprint. There are not currently systems in place to create abundant supplies of green hydrogen, and the fuel is expensive to transport. ZeroAvia is hopeful that the hydrogen can be produced at airports and is working with Shell on fueling solutions.

In the meantime, many airlines are pursuing Sustainable Aviation Fuel or SAF, which are fuels produced from non-fossil fuel sources, such as oils from plants and animals and agricultural waste. SAF is also in limited supply and has climate impacts, but can be used in existing aircraft.

Flight plans

ZeroAvia, which launched in 2017, has R&D sites in Hollister, Calif. and Cotswold Airport in the United Kingdom. It conducted its first commercial-scale electric- and hydrogen-powered flight tests in 2020 in England with a six-passenger plane. In the coming weeks, Miftakhov said the company will be testing a 20-seat plane in the U.K., and later in California.

The next big challenge, Miftakhov said, is navigating the certification process with the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulators.

“Frankly, the biggest risk is the timing of certification,” he said.

If all goes to plan, Miftakhov estimates that the company could be producing powertrains for about 40 of the 10-to 20-seat aircraft in 2024, which means building 80-plus powertrains. Among the many questions that still need to be answered is where the powertrains and airframes come together, whether that step would take place at ZeroAvia, and where the aircraft would be manufactured.

Morgansen called the timeline “bold” and said it will be key to hire people experienced in commercializing the manufacturing processes.

ZeroAvia’s goal for 2025 is to start building ZA-2000 powertrains for aircraft that can carry 40 to 90 passengers, with plans to deliver those systems to customers in 2026.

“That’s where the Alaska Airlines project kicks in,” Miftakhov said. Alaska has commercial flights out of Paine Field, and ZeroAvia plans to use its technology on some of the airline’s smaller aircraft at that location.

Local efforts are already underway. ZeroAvia has employees in the area, has rented a temporary space while it overhauls the Paine Field warehouse, and has started the hiring process.

Miftakhov couldn’t help quipping: “We’re ready for takeoff.”

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