Wed.
Oct 28
2020
EU Carbon Cuts Lift Off as Airbus Unveils Hydrogen Aircraft Plans

Image: Airbus

Airbus, the Toulouse, France-based airplane manufacturer, has unveiled three concepts for zero-emission flight using hydrogen-powered passenger aircraft that could enter service as early as 2035.

“We intend to play a leading role in the most important transition this industry has ever seen,” said Guillaume Faury, Airbus CEO in a statement from the company. “I strongly believe that the use of hydrogen – both in synthetic fuels and as a primary power source for commercial aircraft – has the potential to significantly reduce aviation’s climate impact.”  

The European Union’s aim to become carbon neutral by 2050 will require buy-in from various transportation sectors. Automotive aims have centred on zero-emission electric cars with light, compact batteries for short haul distances. Meanwhile, air travel and deep-water shipping require long-haul secure fuels to safely navigate their own environments.

Though comparatively expensive, hydrogen can be purified into fuel using an electrolyser. This electrolyser can be powered by renewable generation, adding to expense but making the entire process green. After entering the tank, hydrogen burns emitting only water. However, it physically takes up much more space to store than traditional fuel, which is likely one reason why Airbus is producing three new design concepts for its planes.

The three designs cover transcontinental jets with 120-200 passengers, as well as turboprop for short haul hops for up to 100 passengers. The third is a futuristic model blending wing and fuselage design for up to 200 passengers. The exceptionally wide fuselage creates multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution, as well as for cabin layout.

It is plausible that we will see the first airplane of a new breed appear by 2035. But seeing a large-scale transition by then sounds a bit much, given that earnest efforts to develop renewable hydrogen have only just begun. While moves to scale in hydrogen production will reduce cost, doubts remain as to whether that makes it even close to competitive with traditional jet fuel unless innovations are introduced.

Setting aside the effect of innovation, the next 10-15 years will be: “what comes first, the chicken or the egg?” Energy producers will want a market to sell their new fuels before making big investment commitments. Aircraft manufacturers will want to ensure supply before changing their fleets.

Trying to engineer this massive industrial change without obvious advantages in profitability will likely take more time than expected. That said, a visible finish line of pollution-free air travel is a powerful incentive for investors, governments and corporates who care about going green.

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Stephen Bierman

By Stephen Bierman

Stephen Bierman is an energy, markets journalist and the editor of New Economy Observer.