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Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos just invested millions in aeroplane start-up

Lucy Dean
·3-min read
Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos' speaking.
Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos' companies are both backing a new venture. Images: Getty

Two of the world’s richest men are backing a new start-up promising to make zero-carbon flying the future of travel.

ZeroAvia is a California startup working to develop hydrogen-electric technology and includes Amazon, Shell and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures among its investors.

The startup announced on Wednesday it has secured US$21.4 million from those backers, and another US$16.3 million from the UK government. It’s also joining with British Airways to accelerate the airline’s transition to hydrogen.

That means that within the space of a week, the company has reported US$37.7 million (AU$49.80 million) in new funding.

What does ZeroAvia do?

ZeroAvia said the funding will allow it to develop and test its technology which aims to replace conventional engines with hydrogen-fueled technology. It recently completed the world’s first hydrogen-powered flight of a commercial aircraft, with a six-seat aircraft flying for around 15 minutes in England before landing.

However, it plans to extend that to a 250 mile flight - or the rough distance of London to Paris - by the end of March 2020.

Watch: ZeroAvia completes test flight.

“Our most recent milestone achievements are closing the gap for the airline industry to begin its transition away from fossil fuels,” founder and CEO of ZeroAvia Val Miftakhov said.

ZeroAvia said the technology will result in zero emissions, quieter aircraft and dramatically lower fuel and maintenance costs, which will result in cheaper flying costs overall. It plans to achieve commercialisation by 2023 and by 2026 have aircraft with 80 seats flying 500 miles, or 805 kilometres.

By 2030, it believes it can offer technology to power aircraft with more than 100 seats for flights of over 1609 kilometres.

“Both aviation and the financial markets are waking up to the idea that hydrogen is the only meaningful path towards large-scale, zero-emission commercial flight. Powering a 100-seat plane on hydrogen is not out of the question,” Miftakhov said.

Amazon’s global sustainability vice president Kara Hurst said Amazon wanted to reach the Paris Climate Agreement goals 10 years early, and this investment fit into that goal.

“ZeroAvia’s zero-emission aviation powertrain has real potential to help decarbonize the aviation sector, and we hope this investment will further accelerate the pace of innovation to enable zero-emission air transport at scale."

Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ founder and managing partner Carmichael Roberts agreed, saying hydrogen fuel is a “critical component” in moving the world to a sustainable energy.

He said the new technology offers a “realistic solution” for the aviation industry, which is one of the leading contributors to climate change and emissions. Airlines produced a billion tonnes of CO2 in 2018, with emissions jumping by 32 per cent between 2013 and 2018.

“We look forward to working with them on this mission and decarbonizing aviation together,” Roberts said.

Australia’s zero-emissions airline

While it hasn’t attracted the same big backers, Sydney Seaplanes plans to launch an all-electric and zero-emissions airline by 2025.

It wants to expand its fleet to nine aircraft and begin using battery power for flights by 2023.

"We believe there will be a revolution in aviation and we want to be at the forefront," Aaron Shaw, chief executive of Sydney Seaplanes, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

“Combined with our commitment to use solar technology in our charging facilities, this puts us in a very strong position to become the world’s first fully-electric nil-emissions airline, subject to the speed of regulatory approvals," he said.

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