As a champion of clean energy, Valery Miftakhov found himself on a self-inflicted guilt trip when he was piloting small planes and helicopters. The Siberian-born, Princeton- and Stanford-educated physicist became fascinated with clean transportation and clean fuel while living in Silicon Valley and witnessing the emergence of Tesla and a technical focus on decarbonization.

Having already created a company that made electric vehicles more efficient to charge--and landed a spot on Inc.'s annual ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. in 2017--he's turning his eyes to the skies with another startup, ZeroAvia. "With land transport rapidly decarbonizing, air transport is quickly becoming the leading emission source, so we must find ways to make aviation more sustainable," says Miftakhov, who will serve as ZeroAvia's CEO.

The goal: Make short-haul aviation more sustainable and cleaner through the development of a zero-emission, hydrogen-fueled, electric powertrain. Although hydrogen fuel cells have been around for a long time, Miftakhov's powertrain design will make use of available fuel cell components along with his own proprietary integration hardware and software that he says will cut a commuter jet's operating costs nearly in half.

It wouldn't be the first time Miftakhov has run with an existing technology. His journey in the transportation game started with eMotorWerks in 2010, a business that converted conventional BMWs into EVs. Then he converted the entire business to the other side of the equation with a cleaner charging solution for EV owners called the JuiceBox. It's a fast, app-enabled EV charger designed let users tap the grid at the most carbon-efficient time. He sold eMotorWerks to the Italian multinational energy conglomerate, the Enel Group.

Even while serving as a consultant to Enel, until May, Miftakhov was already building his next business, officially announced August 14. "I was a pilot since about 15 years ago. I love flying airplanes and helicopters, and with me being in the zero-emission transportation field with eMotorWerks, there were a lot of guilt-trip moments." he told Inc. "Also, I fly a lot commercially to various conferences and partners events, so it's a real footprint." According to ZeroAvia, aviation accounts for more than 12 percent of total transportation emissions, growing fast on the way to doubling by 2050, as nations such as China build out their air fleets.

With a target of 2022, the Hollister, California-based company plans to start supplying its platform to commercial operators and aircraft manufacturers, initially focusing on regional flights in 10- to- 20-seat aircraft on runs up to 500 miles. Half of all aircraft emissions come from flights that are less than 1,000 miles in distance. Even worse, released at high altitudes, aviation emissions have two to four times the impact of comparable ground source emissions.

By thinking smaller in terms of range, Miftakhov is actually thinking bigger. "If you look at the overall statistics of air travel, 500 miles is about half of the worldwide departures. This type of travel is a San Francisco to Los Angeles, Boston to Philadelphia, London to Paris, you name it. So, all of those are short-haul flights that we're looking to repower." The company is not designing new aircraft, just the drivetrains, says Miftakhov.

Miftakhov says his hydro-plane will be eco-friendly on two fronts, ecologically and economically. "It will also be more economical than conventional turbine engines, or even the battery-based systems, on the total cost basis. We calculate the total costs of operating a ZeroAvia aircraft to be close to half of what it costs to fly a conventional turbine aircraft, due to lower fuel input costs, higher powertrain efficiency, and reduced maintenance costs," he says.

It sounds like a bit of a stretch for an already overpromised power source, but Miftakhov is a guy who clearly knows his molecules.

Published on: Aug 14, 2019