Airbus gears up for hydrogen jet as fuel of future edges closer to reality

Firm will need ‘degree of certainty’ on regulatory environment and availability of fuel

The Airbus turbofan, turboprop and blended-wing body ZEROe aircraft using hydrogen fuel. The company is increasingly confident that 2035 is a ‘fair and realistic perspective’ for a hydrogen plane to enter service. Photograph: Airbus

The Airbus turbofan, turboprop and blended-wing body ZEROe aircraft using hydrogen fuel. The company is increasingly confident that 2035 is a ‘fair and realistic perspective’ for a hydrogen plane to enter service. Photograph: Airbus

 

Hydrogen’s moment is fast approaching, according to Airbus. Talked about as the fuel of the future for years, Guillaume Faury, the planemaker’s chief executive, says the company is ready to start building a hydrogen-powered commercial airliner before the end of the decade.

Europe’s aerospace champion is increasingly confident that 2035 is a “fair and realistic perspective” for a hydrogen plane to enter service, despite scepticism among other industry leaders about how quickly the gas can make an impact on aviation emissions.

“We don’t need to change the laws of physics to go with hydrogen. Hydrogen has an energy density three times that of kerosene – [technically it] is made for aviation,” Mr Faury told reporters at an Airbus event on sustainability in Toulouse.

His comments signal Airbus’s growing confidence that the company will be able to tackle the complex engineering and safety challenges needed to make hydrogen-powered aircraft work. Mr Faury warned, however, that government and regulatory support would be needed.

Challenge

Airbus, he said, needed to have a “degree of certainty” of the regulatory environment and the availability of the fuel by 2027/28, when the company will have to decide whether or not to invest billions in a new hydrogen plane programme.

“This [decarbonisation] challenge is not only about an aeroplane, it’s about having the right fuels – hydrogen – at the right time, at the right place, at the right price and that is not something that aviation can manage alone,” he said.

Mr Faury’s remarks underline the increasing urgency in the aviation industry as it strives to meet zero-emission targets by 2050. Before the pandemic led to the grounding of much of the global aircraft fleet, aviation accounted for roughly 2.4 per cent of global emissions.

The pressure to curb emissions has only accelerated since the crisis. The summit in Toulouse brought together airlines, airports and policymakers in an attempt to galvanise a co-operative approach on how to burn less kerosene.

In Toulouse, John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow Airport, called on airlines to help trigger the use of sustainable aviation fuels, telling the audience: “If we don’t get to net zero by 2050, we won’t have a business. The faster we scale up sustainable aviation fuels, the faster we can decarbonise aviation.”

‘Silver bullet’

Airbus, along with its peers, agrees that there is no one “silver bullet” and that a variety of solutions will be needed to address the decarbonisation challenge. It too is working on different technologies, including sustainable aviation fuels.

But differences remain about the speed at which the industry can make hydrogen happen and Airbus’s enthusiasm is not shared by everyone.

At Airbus’s rival Boeing, engineers are also working on technologies such as hydrogen and electric propulsion, but the company has made clear it believes the potential for the gas is some time off.

“My path will not include – between now and 2050, will not include the introduction of a hydrogen-powered aeroplane in the scale of aeroplanes that we’re referring to,” Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun told an analyst conference in June.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021