Europe's largest aircraft manufacturer Airbus intends to have the first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft flying by 2035 and believes the fuel will replace kerosene, ultimately leading to zero-emissions aviation.
That was the prediction of Airbus vice-president of zero-emission aircraft, Glenn Llewellyn, an Irishman directing its "ZEROe" project which has three prototype aircraft in development, all using hydrogen.
Renewable energy needs to power future aviation and hydrogen is potentially the best pathway through which to do so, he told a Rethink Energy webinar jointly hosted by the Institute of International & European Affairs and the ESB on Thursday.
Success would depend, however, on widespread use of hydrogen in economies, Mr Llewellyn said, and renewable energy in the form of wind and solar continuing to decline in price; likewise the cost of electricity which would be critical to produce low-cost hydrogen.
It was down to “simple mathematics”, Mr Llewellyn said, as Paris Agreement targets could not be met without hydrogen. It was the most promising solution to potentially eliminate aviation’s climate impact, while significantly reducing or even eliminating pollutants such as CO2, NOx and contrails, the line-shaped vapour trails produced by aircraft engine exhausts.
It was also “complementary to the short-term need to scale up sustainable aviation fuel”; a carbon-reduction solution for commercial aircraft over the short to medium terms.
Hydrogen does not produce any emissions if generated from renewable energy through electrolysis, he said. This would essentially allow aviation to be powered by renewable energy.
He expected the cost of hydrogen to significantly decline over the next decade as its production ramps up at a large scale in transport; notably through use in trucks, rail travel and shipping. This would make it increasingly cost-competitive with existing options, such as kerosene jet fuel.
Airports should start using hydrogen to decarbonise their ground transportation ecosystem, thereby enabling hydrogen to scale up at airports in preparation for future hydrogen aircraft by the mid-2030s, Mr Llewellyn said, but they should also act as hydrogen hubs servicing adjoining cities.
Each Airbus concept represents a different approach to achieving zero-emission flight, exploring various technology pathways and aerodynamic configurations to support the company’s ambition of “leading the way in decarbonisation of the aviation industry”.
The ZEROe options, all relying on hydrogen as the main power source, are:
- A "turbofan" design (for less than 200 passengers) powered by hydrogen, rather than jet fuel, through combustion with a range of 2,000-plus nautical miles; operating intercontinentally.
- A "turboprop" design (capacity of up to 100 passengers) with a turboprop engine instead of a turbofan also powered by hydrogen combustion in modified gas-turbine engines with a 1,000-plus nautical miles range; for short-haul trips.
- A "blended-wing body" (less than 200 passengers) due to its wide cabin layout which opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution.
Airbus was investing hundreds of millions of euros in the period up to 2025 in determining which aircraft to bring to the market first. That would scale up to many billions after that, Mr Llewellyn added.
Hydrogen tanks were bulkier and heavier than existing jet fuel storage tanks which meant they needed to come up with innovative ways to integrate them into aircraft. Hydrogen is safe and non-toxic – no more or less dangerous than other fuels, including gasoline and natural gas, he said.
Safety was, nonetheless, a big challenge with hydrogen. “It is mandatory to achieve the same or better safety targets than what we achieve with existing commercial aircraft.”
All solutions require working with engine manufacturers but partnerships were already extending beyond aviation, and Airbus was working with one automotive manufacturer; “This is a team sport,” he said.
The United States in recent months was following the course of Europe, which meant "two massive players" were on board, with indications others would follow, notably India.
Asked what Airbus competitors were doing, Mr Llewellyn said they were planning for a hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft but saying “more like 2050, when we could have this solution”.
“We’re saying, ‘No.’ We can do this earlier, that there’s some urgency to bring these type of solutions to market, to explore them to their maximum . . . because we think it’s really important for aviation.”
He confirmed they were “working with all the engine manufacturers”, without whom, this more aggressive course would not be possible.