SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — Alaska Airlines has transferred a De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 turboprop to ZeroAvia, a powertrain developer, for retrofitting with a hydrogen-electric propulsion system. 

Following the official handover at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, on May 1, the 76-seat Dash 8-400 is expected to become the "world's largest zero-emissions aircraft," according to the companies involved.

The integration of ZeroAvia's powertrain technology with the Dash 8-400 airframe will create a commercially viable zero-emission aircraft with a fuel cell engine that is five times more powerful than any existing system. During the May 1 event, ZeroAvia showcased its HyperCore electric motor system in a 1.8 MW prototype configuration, mounted on a heavy ground-based testing rig.

Alaska's regional subsidiary Horizon Air recently retired its Dash 8-400 fleets but reserved one aircraft for research and development to further advance zero-emissions technology within the aviation industry. Ben Minicucci, Alaska's CEO, emphasized that new technologies are essential to achieve net-zero carbon emissions and expressed excitement at partnering with industry leader ZeroAvia to make zero-emissions options a reality.

ZeroAvia, with operations in the UK and the US, is one of several start-ups focusing on hydrogen fuel as a means to decarbonize the aviation industry. Hydrogen fuel emits only water when burned or used to produce electricity. Another noteworthy company working on hydrogen-electric propulsion technologies is California-based Universal Hydrogen, which successfully completed its first flight of a partly hydrogen fuel cell-powered Dash 8-300 in early March. The company aims to have its hydrogen-propulsion technology incorporated into the next-generation designs of narrowbody Airbus and Boeing jets, as its CEO, Paul Eremenko, believes this may be the only viable path for the aviation industry to achieve zero-carbon emissions by 2050.

While Airbus has backed several hydrogen-based airliner concepts in recent years, Boeing has been less enthusiastic about such propulsion systems. However, significant technical issues must be resolved before hydrogen can become a viable fuel for commercial aircraft. In November, NASA highlighted that hydrogen fuel cells, which emit only water, have not yet been utilized to power large aircraft due to engineering challenges related to weight, temperature, and electrical loads, although new research suggests there may be a way forward.

ZeroAvia has been testing a Dornier 228 aircraft powered in part by its 600kW ZA600 hydrogen fuel cell system, which generates electricity using hydrogen gas. The start-up plans to introduce the powertrain, designed for aircraft with fewer than 20 seats, into service in 2025. Additionally, ZeroAvia is developing the more powerful 2-5.4MW ZA2000 propulsion system, which uses liquid hydrogen to power 40- to 80-seat turboprops and regional jets. The system is on track for a 2027 launch, according to ZeroAvia.

The company's recent advancements not only pave the way for a potential flight of the Dash 8-400 but also demonstrate rapid progress toward the certification of the ZA2000 propulsion system.