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E-airplane startup Zunum builds 1st motor, seeks state support -CEO

NEW YORK, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Boeing Co backed startup Zunum has begun building its first electric airplane motor and is working with U.S. agencies to prepare for commercial flights to take off from small U.S. airports in 2022, Chief Executive Officer Ashish Kumar said on Thursday.

The efforts underscore growing interest and investment in lightweight propulsion systems to bring electric-car benefits to the sky. Zunum, based near Seattle, is among several companies seeking to reduce emissions, noise and travel costs with electric planes. Siemens AG , Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC and Airbus SA joined forces last year on a hybrid electric aircraft propulsion system.

Honeywell International Inc has developed a high-capacity generator that could be used for electric flight.

Norway's recent decision to use electric aircraft on all short-haul flights by 2040 provides "a significant shift in consciousness" about electric aircraft, Kumar said in an interview.

Norway's moves contrast with a 2016 U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study that emphasized better jet engines and fuels to cut emissions, he said.

Norway also is among the strongest backers of electric- cars, having set the goal of selling only zero-emission cars in the country by 2025.

PROTOTYPE MOTOR

Zunum's prototype motor is due to be tested this year, with an improved version flying on a test aircraft in 2019, Kumar said. The Airbus, Siemens, Rolls-Royce system is scheduled to begin test flights in 2020.

Frank Anton, head of Siemens' e-aircraft unit, said in an interview its system will work like a Toyota Prius: A gas-fueled engine inside the plane will spin a generator, sending electricity to small propulsion motors on the wings.

Current aircraft have large gas engines for take off, but do not need that power for cruising.

Zunum's planes will be battery powered, with a gas generator to extend range. Both systems target regional flights from thousands of small airports now used mainly by private aircraft.

Electric-powered flight has been slow to gain acceptance, but Norway's approach provides a model for others. Zunum is talking with state-level agencies to promote the idea, and working with lawmakers in Washington State, where Boeing builds most of its airplanes, on a measure to encourage hybrid-electric aircraft at regional airports.

The increase in interest and investment is welcome, Anton said. "When I started this project in 2010, there were not many believers. I am very happy about the fact that we are no longer alone." (Reporting by Alwyn Scott Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)