features Powering the future of aviation: A look at R&D funding for battery, hydrogen technology

As both battery and hydrogen technology continue to evolve for the aviation industry, where should precious government and private R&D funding be allocated?
Avatar for Treena Hein By Treena Hein | August 22, 2022

Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 17 seconds.

Although it may not seem terribly exciting, government policy and its subsequent funding directions matter a lot in various sectors and subsectors — especially in new ones, such as aircraft powered by batteries or hydrogen technology.

Piasecki Aircraft is partnering with HyPoint, a company developing hydrogen fuel cell systems for aviation, to develop a system for Piasecki’s PA-890 helicopters. Piasecki Image

John Piasecki is the president and CEO of Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, a research and development (R&D) business specializing in design, fabrication and flight testing of experimental rotorcraft and unmanned aircraft.

Piasecki said that in this new sector, government funding “plays an absolutely pivotal role in several areas. Technology is one, and the others are certification standards and infrastructure.”

But should funding be going in these areas to batteries and/or hydrogen technology — perhaps toward one more than the other?

Taking a look at use cases, for shorter distance eVTOL flights, batteries make sense.

Hydrogen (either used electrically or combusted) is more suited to powering high-payload long-distance flights, whether by eVTOLs or larger planes.

Indeed, powering commercial regional aircraft with combustible hydrogen, says HYSKY Society founder and Danielle McLean, has a faster near-term return on investment compared to eVTOLs.

HYSKY is a non-profit bringing hydrogen aviation to the U.S. effectively and achieving utilization as quickly as possible. McLean also co-founded and chairs the H2eVTOL Council where she pre-competitively connected over 300 hydrogen-aviation companies, and is the Vertical Flight Society’s (VFS) hydrogen adviser.

Both battery and hydrogen technologies continue to evolve. On the battery front for example, a breakthrough was recently announced from Cuberg regarding its lithium metal cell.

On the hydrogen end, during the recent Farnborough International Airshow, German-based H2Fly (purportedly owned by Joby Aviation since 2021 and supported by Germany’s federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action) announced that its HY4 aircraft will be using a new liquid hydrogen tank which should double its range.

Like Joby, Airbus is investing in both battery and hydrogen systems. It is developing a fully-electric CityAirbus NextGen eVTOL but also exploring hybrid-electric helicopters, along with hybrid-hydrogen ‘ZEROe’ planes.

In late June, Airbus signed an memorandum of understanding with Linde to work on the development of hydrogen infrastructure at airports worldwide, including global supply chains for hydrogen from production to airport storage.

VFS hosted its first annual hydrogen symposium in March 2022, after establishing a hydrogen council last year.

Joby H2FLY
Owned by Joby Aviation, H2Fly recently announced that it will be using a new liquid hydrogen tank for its HY4 hydrogen-powered aircraft. The company expects the new tank will double its range capability. H2Fly Image

Piasecki is also exploring hydrogen technology, for example, through working with HyPoint which recently opened a new R&D facility for hydrogen fuel cells in the U.K.

In the view of McLean, Piasecki and also Sujeet Kumar, both hydrogen and battery technologies should receive government support. Kumar is CEO of battery technology firm Zenlabs Energy, which is developing silicon-based cells and counts Lilium as one of its partners.

They believe both battery and hydrogen technologies are needed to meet different aviation — and land transportation — market needs as fossil fuels are phased out.

“We can’t displace such a large monopoly as oil without consumer choices,” Kumar said. “We need to invest in hydrogen fuel cells, in biofuels, in batteries.”

Aviation leads the way

Piasecki sees success in the aviation sector as being a critical first step in the quest to phase out carbon-based fuels for transportation of goods and services.

This is because the aviation value chain can sustain higher initial costs at early introduction before the economics of scale are fully realized.

Piasecki believes once hydrogen and battery technologies are established in the sky, application to the huge land-based transportation system will follow.

“The government investment needs to focus on maturing the technologies that can first become viable and self-supporting in aviation,” Piasecki said. “Both hydrogen and electric are important, but the funding needs to leverage our free market economy, to get things to the tipping point and then you unleash the energy of the free market.”

State of funding

It’s clear that the U.S. government is funding technology development in both hydrogen and batteries.

Looking at specific funding for hydrogen-powered aviation, however, McLean said it doesn’t yet exist.

“The Department of Energy [DOE] launched ‘Hydrogen Shot,’ an aggressive challenge focused on making ‘green’ hydrogen more affordable ($1 per kilogram) within a decade but there have been no aviation-specific efforts,” she explained. “However, the $1/kg target is important because affordable green hydrogen is the key driver of its adoption in aviation.”

Still, while Piasecki considers the general technology investments in hydrogen so far by the U.S. government “pretty small,” he views them as significant.

“So far, there has been some investments from AFWERX, a technology directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory of the Department of Defense,” he reported. “It’s unique because traditional R&D investments from the Defense Department have been top down, focused on filling the gaps, but AFWERX is set up to have industry come to it with opportunities, with suggestions. I can see that sort of funding ramping up as working technology prototypes are developed. It will give the government the confidence to invest further.”

German-based eVTOL developer Lilium is benefiting from recent battery technology development. The company plans to use Zenlabs’ battery cell technology to power its Lilium Jet eVTOL aircraft. Lilium Image

There are also billions of dollars in funding for advancing the hydrogen ecosystem, Piasecki said, from the DOE under the infrastructure bill.

“A large part of that will go toward hydrogen hubs and hydrogen production,” he noted. “But you will need systems to consume the hydrogen, and aviation could play an important role on the demand side.”

Looking at other countries, McLean noted that China is the largest producer and consumer of hydrogen in the world. Since 2010, it has achieved a 6.8% year-on-year increase to reach 33 million tons of H2 production in 2020.

She reported that in South Korea, Korean Air has embarked on a project to pioneer the Korean hydrogen fuel infrastructure in collaboration with Airbus. JAXA in Japan is committed to building hydrogen engines, developed by Mitsubishi, for aviation. Also in Japan, Airbus is partnered with three airports for hydrogen developments.

Battery funding

Piasecki said most battery funding has come from the private sector side, including the auto industry.

Battery R&D takes a very long time to bear any fruit, Kumar noted. “It’s a long patient game to be successful. We need more investment in different stages of battery development. There are different challenges at each stage.”

McLean pointed out three U.S. government funding initiatives for batteries.

One is an investment of $209 million from the DOE. DOE has also launched EVs4ALL, a $45 million funding program for electric vehicles battery development. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2021 Aviation Climate Action Plan includes the programs called Voluntary Airport Low Emissions, Zero Emission Vehicle, Energy Efficiency, Sustainability and Resilience Research.

Beyond technology

McLean stressed, however, that it’s pointless to fund technology development if there is no supporting infrastructure.

With regard to hydrogen, she said “logistics are essential to the use of both eVTOL and fixed-wing aircraft, and having hydrogen supply at airports and vertiports is key. This will be the determining factor of whether or not hydrogen is affordable and scalable. About US$1 trillion is estimated to be needed to equip existing airports with hydrogen with an initial US$10 million needed on implementation research.”

Workforce development is another key challenge, McLean said.

“Currently, there is no hydrogen-aviation workforce. We need to invest about US$300 million to develop programs to train our future talent.”

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