Image credits: Beyond Aero
The aviation industry is well aware of its carbon footprint, but it is not an industry where things change quickly. Batteries may be an option for short-range electric aircraft use cases, but for everything else, they still weigh a lot compared to the amount of power they can hold. But there is another option: hydrogen. This is what France-based Beyond Aero is betting on, as it looks to bring a hydrogen-powered business jet to the market.
The company, which is part of Disrupt’s emerging Battlefield competition this week, is ground testing an 85-kilowatt hydrogen-based propulsion system, and flight tests of the single-engine test bed are scheduled for later this year. The company plans to launch a business jet, Beyond Aero One, with a range of 800 nautical miles, a speed of about 310 knots (or just over 356 mph) and seating for up to eight passengers. However, the vision is much broader, with plans to launch a passenger jet and perhaps larger aircraft in the future.
The company was founded by long-time friends Eloa Guillotin (CEO), Hugo Tarlé (CTO/COO) and Valentin Chomel (Product & Strategy). While Guillotin and Tarle were both entrepreneurial, Chomel had previously worked in the aviation industry. While working on flight test equipment at Safran, one of the world’s largest aircraft equipment manufacturers, he discovered vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) and hydrogen propulsion systems. Schommel began his doctoral studies, focusing on the technology roadmap to electrification, but in the evenings, he would end up talking with his two friends who were also researching what to do next and getting involved in the Internet of Things and mathematical technology.
“I said, ‘You guys are passionate about airplanes, let’s build an airplane as a company.’ “There is a huge opportunity in the market that everything will need to change,” Schommel told me.
Things snowballed from there, as Schommel left behind his PhD and the three started the company from the ground up.
In many ways, Schommel says, it’s easier for startups to build an airplane from the ground up than for large companies like Boeing or Airbus that are switching from their existing systems to something entirely new. The founders also argue that it will be a long time before electric flight takes off. On the other hand, hydrogen fuel cells are already widely deployed in heavy road transportation, including buses and trucks. “Our plane is basically three trucks,” Shumel joked.
He noted that the challenges are mostly related to hydrogen storage and thermal management of hydrogen in the aviation environment. The company has a number of patents on this already. One involves placing hydrogen tanks in a cover under the main body of the aircraft, while the other covers the heat management system. A hydrogen system would require a relatively large heat exchanger, which would create additional drag on the aircraft, reducing its range and thus its usefulness. “All our intellectual property is about how to make a hydrogen-powered plane — not how to make a hydrogen powertrain. We haven’t revolutionized that,” he said. Instead, the team’s focus is on integrating all of these systems.
Beyond Aero’s current focus is getting the demonstrator into the air and testing its basic assumptions. After that, work will begin on the business jet. Given business aviation’s massive carbon emissions per passenger mile, the team believes this is not only technologically feasible, but also a huge market demanding an alternative to current fuel-burning jet engines. “We want to meet the market with clients who have an issue with the public image (of private jet ownership), personal conviction or the environmental, social and governance goals of their company,” Chomel said. These clients have millions of dollars available to buy a Falcon or Gulfstream, but these players don’t offer any alternatives either.
Beyond Aero was part of Y Combinator’s Winter ’22 group. The company has raised funding before joining YC, during and after, for a total of three rounds to date, with Initialized, Air France and a number of unicorn founders investing in the company over the course of these rounds.
The team argues that it can rely on the vast existing aviation ecosystem to obtain all the parts it needs to build its plane, including the actual airframe. However, one challenge they are likely to face is ensuring that enough aircraft have hydrogen available for their aircraft to refuel. Hydrogen itself is already widely available, but there’s no refueling infrastructure yet, and there’s clearly a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem here: no one’s going to buy an airplane that can’t refuel reliably and no one’s going to invest in building that infrastructure so it can. There is demand.
Chomel says airports will only need to have a mobile hydrogen tanker trailer available, although that requires a bit of investment, all while these airports are also looking to move to sustainable aviation fuels and move away from leaded fuel 100 liters for their general aviation fast piston .