Aerospace giant Airbus has announced plans to build “zero-emission” aircraft using hydrogen power technology. On Monday (21 September), the firm revealed three concept designs that are on the table and is targeting a 2035 entry-into-service.
Airbus is working on three designs for aircraft that could be zero-emission, which range from a conventional turbofan jet with space for 200 passengers to a ‘blended wing’ concept that is a significant departure from the current generation of planes.
“These concepts will help us explore and mature the design and layout of the world’s first climate-neutral, zero-emission commercial aircraft, which we aim to put into service by 2035,” said CEO Guillaume Faury.
“The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem. Together with the support from government and industrial partners we can rise up to this challenge to scale-up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry,” said Faury.
The turbofan design would have a range of more than 2,000 nautical miles – roughly the same as London-Tel Aviv – using hydrogen stored in tanks incorporated into the design of the plane.
Airbus will also look into a propeller-powered plane capable of carrying 100 passengers and with half the range of the turbofan, making it “a perfect option for short-haul trips”, the company said in a statement.
The most radical departure though will be a blended wing design, which would substantially increase the amount of space available for fuel storage and offer different passenger layouts.
“The exceptionally wide fuselage opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution, and for cabin layout,” Airbus explained.
Dutch airline KLM is already working on a blended wing prototype. Earlier this month, a scaled-down remote-controlled demo version took the skies for the first time, as part of a project led by the University of Delft.
Designs are still at an early stage of development but researchers are bullish about the advantages offered by the new concept, which could reduce fuel consumption by 20% compared to even the most economical current generation of jets.
Executives say that ground demonstrators will be launched in 2021 and that a first prototype flight is pencilled in for 2025, once technology choices and design schematics are firmly locked in.
The claim that the new aircraft will be “zero-emission” will be under scrutiny though, given that hydrogen-burn can produce nitrogen oxides, while the water vapour created by combustion can also be counted as an emission.
Both have a climate effect, depending on at what altitude they are emitted. Regulators have so far paid little attention to the non-CO2 impacts of aviation and the European Commission’s new climate plan for 2030, for example, does not mention them.
Top executives later said that Airbus will aim to eliminate all climate impacts produced by hydrogen combustion but acknowledged that a lot of work will be needed to achieve that.
Hydrogen on the horizon
The aircraft-maker’s foray into hydrogen is not an unexpected move. Faury acknowledged in July that the fuel “is one of the most promising technologies available to help us reach zero-emission flights by 2035”.
In June, the French government approved a €15 billion bailout for the aerospace industry, which includes support for small-scale parts manufacturers and a €1.5 billion research and development fund.
As part of the terms of the deal, the government also set the sector the target of launching a carbon-neutral successor to the Airbus A320, a medium-range jet that is the best-selling airliner in the world.
The bailout deal suggests a number of propulsion options that could be used to achieve that goal, including electric-power, biofuels and hydrogen.
An EU-backed study published in May made the case for hydrogen as one of the best ways to clean up aviation, touting the CO2-free nature of the fuel – if produced using renewable energy – and the reduction in non-CO2 impacts of flying.
However, the authors warned that “it will require significant research and development, investments, and accompanying regulation to ensure safe, economic aircraft and infrastructure mastering climate impact.”
The study also concluded that hydrogen is best suited to short- and medium-haul planes, given the significant costs associated with adapting long-range jets. From an economic point of view, synthetic fuels are the more viable option, it adds.
Among the technical challenges that will need to be overcome, the study warns that developing refuelling infrastructure will need consideration, given liquid hydrogen’s differences with the existing fuel of choice, kerosene.
“Handling and safety regulations would need to be re-assessed for LH2 use in aviation, given the radically different properties versus conventional jet fuel,” the authors explain.
Airbus acknowledges that refuelling will need government support to keep pace with the rate of aircraft development but also calls for fleet renewal in order to quickly phase in more sustainable planes.
Expertise in working with liquid hydrogen is not abundant, although one sector – the space industry – has used it for decades to propel rockets into orbit. French utility Engie brokered an alliance with the Ariane Group this month to tap into that know-how.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]