Airbus ponders hydrogen’s flying future

Aviation emissions could plummet if hydrogen's potential is tapped. [Photo: Master Films/Hervé Goussé]

European aerospace giant Airbus sees hydrogen power as “one of the most promising technologies available” to decarbonise air travel and is looking to utilise it as part of plans to roll out a zero-emission aircraft by 2035.

CEO Guillaume Faury welcomed the publication of the European Commission’s hydrogen strategy on Wednesday (8 July), insisting his company is “committed to developing sustainable flight and believes hydrogen is one of the most viable solutions.”

“Hydrogen is one of the most promising technologies available to help us reach zero-emission flights by 2035. We welcome the EU’s Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap, which enables us to live up to that ambition,” the firm added.

Airbus has been rocked by the coronavirus and announced last week that 15,000 jobs would be cut, as airlines scrap plans to buy new aircraft or cancel orders that have already been placed.

According to new figures released this week, Airbus has logged nearly 300 orders in 2020 so far but failed to secure a single sale in the month of June. The firm still has a significant backlog of more than 7,500 planes to wade through.

Faury has called for a European ‘cash for clunkers’-style fleet renewal scheme that would reward airlines that choose to trade in older jets for more efficient updated models.

France unveiled €15 billion in emergency aid for the sector in June in an effort to safeguard 300,000 at-risk jobs and the package also includes a €1.5 billion research and development fund.

France unveils €15bn in aerospace aid

The French government on Tuesday (9 June) lifted the lid on a €15 billion support package for its lucrative but embattled aerospace sector. The scheme involves a €500 million investment fund for smaller companies and a plan to debut a carbon-neutral plane by 2035.

As part of the deal, the government wants to see a carbon-neutral aircraft – that could take over from the hugely popular A320 – roll off the production line by 2035, suggesting that biofuels and hydrogen are the most suitable options.

The government would also like to see a regional jet – powered either by hydrogen or electric-battery – by 2030, as well as a similarly powered helicopter by 2029.

Airbus has already flirted with low-emission aircraft and up until April was working on a prototype jet that would have run hybrid electric engines. The project was cancelled when the virus outbreak wrecked the plans of both Airbus and its engine partner, Rolls-Royce.

Hydrogen has some notable advantages over electric-power in aviation, most notably its power-to-weight ratio, although a recent EU-backed study warned that expensive aircraft redesigns needed to house larger fuel tanks make it an infeasible option for long-haul flights.

The same study concluded that hydrogen “has significant, so far underestimated potential to reduce the climate impact of aviation and contribute to decarbonisation objectives. To reap this potential, we must develop and deploy new technologies across the board.”

Aviation accounts for up to 3.6% of the EU’s CO2 emissions and, despite the pandemic’s cooling effect on air travel demand, that number is expected to grow. The Commission estimates an increase of up to 150% by 2040 if current technology continues to be deployed.

Largest electric plane in Europe takes to the skies over the UK

A six-seater battery-powered aircraft flew for the first time over the UK on Monday (22 June), becoming Europe’s largest e-plane in the process just as the aviation industry revealed that it wants the EU to invest big in the future of flight innovation.

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