There are plenty of obstacles standing in the way of developing the first zero-emission, hydrogen-powered plane. It is tricky to safely store and use the highly combustible fuel. There are not any airports equipped to refuel jets with it and the cost of hydrogen itself is prohibitive, at least if you want to avoid producing greenhouse gases.
Yet in September, Airbus SE gave itself five years to develop a commercially viable hydrogen aircraft. The world’s biggest planemaker has the backing of its stakeholders — the French, Spanish, and German governments, who have pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 — and billions of euros in government subsidies.
Even with help it is going to be a herculean task that wold require reinventing the trillion-dollar aviation industry.
Hydrogen was not the company’s first option. Airbus engineers spent years studying the potential of using batteries to store electricity on planes with Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC, only to shelve the project earlier this year. While batteries make sense in road vehicles, the relatively low levels of energy they produce means anything that could carry enough charge for a long-haul flight would be too heavy for an aircraft.
“Hydrogen is the most promising energy type to allow us to power aircraft and aviation with renewable energy,” said Glenn Llewellyn, the engineer leading Airbus’ moonshot experiment. “Battery technology is not evolving at the pace required for us to achieve our ambition.”
The project is currently the world’s best shot at achieving flight that does not pollute the planet. It could put an end to emissions that are set to persist long after city grids are running on 100 percent clean energy and electric vehicles have become mainstream. It would also make eco-conscious travelers feel less guilty about contributing to global warming every time they step on a plane.
The aviation industry added more than 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere last year, according to clean energy research group BloombergNEF.
While emissions are set to plummet this year because of COVID-19, that drop will be temporary.
Unlike fossil fuels, which emit planet-warming carbon dioxide when they are burned, hydrogen mostly produces water vapor. Today, most hydrogen is used in oil refining and chemical manufacturing, and it is almost always made from natural gas or coal.
However, it can also be generated, at higher cost, by running an electric current through water. If that process is powered by renewable energy such as wind and solar, it is possible to use the fuel without producing any carbon dioxide.
This is what Airbus plans to do. The company estimates that green hydrogen has the potential to halve the aviation industry’s emissions — a tantalizing prospect given that BloombergNEF projects that those emissions are set to double globally by 2050.
Llewellyn’s team is studying three designs: a classic commercial aircraft, a turboprop plane and a new model that blends the wing into the body of the jet. All of them would use hydrogen in modified gas turbines to propel the engines, and in fuel cells to create electrical power.
The main issue is how to store the hydrogen. As more of it is needed to power an aircraft than the blend of gasoline and kerosene used today, it cannot be stored inside the wings as fuel is now.
That means hydrogen jet fuel would most likely have to go in the body of the plane. Or perhaps designers would need to allow for an elongated tail, so that hydrogen tanks can be stored in the area separating the cabin from the non-pressurized part of the aircraft.
Airbus is also considering other solutions, including putting the gas in pods under the wing or in the cheeks underneath the aircraft, Llewellyn said.
The blended-wing model would be the most ideal for storing hydrogen because there would be more cabin space, but its new design would also be the most difficult to get certified for flight. Du to of that, Airbus is likely to stick with a classic aircraft chassis, at least initially.
The company plans to spend the next five years developing the concepts and flying flight demonstrators. In 2025, it would decide whether to push the button on spending billions to actually develop the jet.
It would take two additional years to choose suppliers and manufacturing sites, meaning production would probably begin by about 2028.
If all goes well, the company says the first hydrogen aircraft could start flying passengers in 2035. “This project is prioritized extremely highly within Airbus,” Llewellyn said.
I am “very optimistic that we can achieve the schedule, given this mindset,” he added.
By 2035, Airbus hopes hydrogen-based fuel would be cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels, and enough airports would be able to support hydrogen planes to make it an attractive purchase for airlines.
That is why the company is making its ambitions known 15 years in advance, Llewellyn said.
It is still a big ask, especially with the industry crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet things could change quickly in the coming years, with governments around the world pushing hydrogen as a way to cut carbon emissions. Major economies such as those of Europe, China and Japan plan to scale up low-carbon hydrogen production as a key strategy to achieving their net-zero goals.
That could help bring down the cost of clean hydrogen enough to be competitive with the kind made with fossil fuels by 2030, according to BloombergNEF.
The stakes are high if Airbus’ hydrogen gamble should fail. Right now, it has the lead over Boeing, which is about to bring its beleaguered 737 MAX aircraft back to the air.
However, a major misstep on an unproven technology could set Airbus back.
“I think even Airbus would say its time line is quite ambitious,” Roland Berger Strategy Consultants Ltd analyst Robert Thomson said. “There’s a lot of technology development work to be done.”
Aircraft programs usually take at least five or six years to develop once the technology is proven, meaning Airbus has just seven or eight years to bring an entire ecosystem of hydrogen producers, manufacturers and airports along with it. If it does not find a way to lower costs along every step of the process, it will all be for naught.
“There’s no point creating something that’s technically feasible, which then ultimately, nobody can afford to fly in,” Llewellyn said. “We won’t reduce the climate impact of flying unless we create something that’s economically viable.”
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