Are hydrogen-powered aircraft the future of sustainable aviation?

Airbus Zero E aircraft

Hydrogen-powered aircraft produce zero CO2 emissions and, depending on the technology used, can substantially reduce or even eliminate air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, as well as helping prevent contrail formation.

These environmental advantages are the most compelling reason why aviation sustainability experts are excited about hydrogen technology. The possibility of hydrogen-powered planes flying in Europe’s airspace gained momentum when Airbus’ announced in 2020 that zero-emission commercial aircraft based on hydrogen could enter into service by 2035. But for that to happen, as Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus VP Zero Emission Aircraft underlined at EUROCONTROL’s recent webinar on hydrogen planes,

creating a hydrogen infrastructure will be critical: no infrastructure means no ZEROe aircraft. We will need efforts from energy providers, airports and the entire aviation industry in order to make it possible to refuel our ZEROe aircraft at airports in the future.” 

Glenn Llewellyn VP Zero Emission Aircraft, Airbus

First steps have been taken: Group ADP, has teamed up with the aircraft manufacturer, Air France-KLM, and the Paris Region to build a unique ecosystem that will transform Parisian airports into ‘hydrogen hubs’.

“We have launched a call for interest to put in place the relevant hydrogen infrastructure and create a sizeable market around Paris airports, which can start with the use of hydrogen for trucks, logistics, ground handling and more.”

Amélie Lummaux Sustainable Development and Public Affairs Director, GROUPE ADP

The environmental advantages of hydrogen-powered aircraft certainly are a decisive element for this decision.

What do we mean by “hydrogen plane”?

Hydrogen planes describe an aircraft which is either equipped with hydrogen-powered fuel cells or with hydrogen-based jet engines, or a hybrid of hydrogen turbines and fuel cells.

In the context of hydrogen planes synthetic fuel – or synfuel - also play an important role: While they belong to the group of sustainable aviation fuels, synfuels are not based on biomass but their main source is electricity. This electricity is used to first produce hydrogen and to capture carbon, combining the two into a kerosene-like fuel. Synfuel can be used in current aircraft engines.

Clear environmental advantages of hydrogen-powered planes

Hydrogen propulsion powered aircraft emit zero CO2 emissions, and demonstrate a 30-50 % reduction in impacts from contrail and cirrus formation, compared to kerosene aircraft, according to a study released by the Clean Sky 2 and Fuel Cells & Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertakings. The study estimates that hydrogen combustion could reduce climate impact in flight by 50-75%, and with fuel-cell technology by 75-90%.

The 2020s will be the ‘Decade of Hydrogen’. There is no viable path to a zero carbon or climate neutral aviation system that does not involve hydrogen: whether in liquid form as a true ‘zero carbon’ energy source, or as a key building block in the liquid fuels of the future. In order to reach the goals of the European Green Deal, aviation will need radically different aircraft with disruptive technologies to enter the market by 2035 at the latest.” Time is critical, he admits:  “The research and innovation effort must start today, and must include the development and demonstration of hydrogen-based options. This is an Apollo-scale challenge, and getting a hydrogen-powered commercial airliner into service would truly represent a ‘man on the moon’ level accomplishment for Europe.”

Ron Van Manen Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking

Policy-makers bet on hydrogen transport solutions

At present, hydrogen is almost entirely produced from natural gas or coal. The International Energy Agency reckons that its global production is responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined.

Yet, because of its clear environmental benefits when being used, hydrogen is an important part of the solution to meet the 2050 climate neutrality goal of the European Green Deal, which the European Commission underlined when it adopted its EU Hydrogen Strategy in 2020. The aim of the strategy is to decarbonise hydrogen production using mainly wind and solar energy and to expand its use in sectors where it can replace fossil fuels. The Commission estimates that renewable hydrogen technologies should reach maturity and be deployed at large scale from 2030 onwards.

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