Airbus unveils futuristic designs for zero-emission hydrogen planes

Andrew Cummings
September 23, 2020

"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", Guillaume Faury, chief executive of Airbus said in a statement on Monday.

Airbus rolled back the curtain on its three-ship ZEROe program, meant to bring "zero emissions" aircraft to service in just 15 years.

With air travel at a fraction of its normal level due to restrictions and travellers' fears related to the Covid-19 pandemic, airlines have slowed deliveries of new aircraft. The aircraft, with a range of more than 1,000 nautical miles, would be best suited for short-haul trips.

The transition to hydrogen will require "decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem", Faury said. The production technology would, however, still need around five years to reach maturity, and suppliers and industrial sites would need another two to be ready, he said.

The company said its hydrogen-fuelled passenger planes could be in service by 2035. "The exceptionally wide interior opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution", says Airbus, which proposes powering the craft with two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines fueled by hydrogen tanks beneath the wings.

The largest "turbofan" model designed is capable of carrying up to 200 passengers with a range of 2,000 nautical miles, and would be powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen rather than jet fuel, the company said.

The turboprop-appearing regional transport will carry up to 100 passengers "using a turboprop engine instead of a turbofan and also powered by hydrogen combustion in modified gas-turbine engines, which would be capable of traveling more than 1,000 nautical miles, making it a flawless option for short-haul trips", according to Airbus.

Beyond technical developments, the regulatory framework must necessarily evolve by then to authorise the use of hydrogen in commercial aircraft, says Faury. "It can also be converted into electric energy thanks to fuel cells and when combined with Carbon dioxide hydrogen can be used to produce synthetic kerosene", she said.

France and other European countries are investing billions of euros in the development of green hydrogen, with the highly polluting transport industry a prime area for its intended use. However this is now much more expensive than hydrogen produced by using fossil fuels, in addition to being less efficient.

Airbus, the world's biggest planemaker, revealed three designs it is considering to build a hydrogen-powered aircraft as it seeks to bring the world's first emissions-free passenger plane into service by 2035.

"Support from governments is key to meet these ambitious objectives with increased funding required for research and technology, digitalisation, and mechanisms that encourage the use of sustainable fuels", said Faury.

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