European aerospace giant Airbus has revealed plans for three hydrogen-powered, zero-emission aeroplanes – the first of their kind in the world.
Airbus said that the ZEROe planes could be in service by 2035, with plans for the aircraft programme to be launched by 2025.
“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,” Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said in a statement.
The three models include a traditional turbofan design and a turboprop-powered airliner that uses two six-bladed propellers. Airbus said that the turbofan design will have a 200-passenger capacity and a range of around 3,000 km, enough to cover most of Europe. The turboprop concept would have 50% less range and capacity.
The company’s third design is a “blended-wing body,” which reduces drag and increases lift.
The three hydrogen-hybrid designs use gas-turbine engines that have been modified to burn liquid hydrogen along with hydrogen fuel cells to create electrical power.
Each design uses a different method to integrate its liquid hydrogen storage and distribution system. For the turbofan and turboprop design, the hydrogen is stored and distributed using a system located behind the rear pressure bulkhead.
The blended-wing body has more space for its storage and distribution system thanks to its wider body. The storage tanks are based underneath the wings and provide power to its two hybrid hydrogen turbofan engines.
“Hydrogen has a different volumetric energy density than jet fuel so we have to study other storage options and aircraft architectures than existing ones,” explained Airbus EVP Engineering Jean-Brice Dumont.
“This means the visual appearance of our future zero-emission aircraft will change. These three configurations provide us with some exciting options for further exploration.”
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Airbus VP for Zero-Emission Aircraft Glenn Llewellyn added: “As recently as five years ago, hydrogen propulsion wasn’t even on our radar as a viable emission-reduction technology pathway. But convincing data from other transport industries quickly changed all that. Today, we’re excited by the incredible potential hydrogen offers aviation in terms of disruptive emissions reduction.”
According to Airbus, hydrogen could reduce the aviation industry’s CO2 emissions by up to 50%.
The company aims to launch several hydrogen demonstrator programmes to test hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen combustion technologies in the coming months. A full-scale aircraft prototype is estimated to arrive by the late 2020s.
Airbus was previously involved in designing a hydrogen-powered aeroplane between 2000 and 2002 as part of the EU-funded Cryoplane project, which studied the feasibility of using liquid hydrogen to power an aircraft.
The £6.5-million study found that aircraft would need to use fuel tanks four times bigger than current models. The larger exterior surface areas would in turn drive up energy consumption by 9% to 14% and increase overall operating costs by 4% to 5%.
The study also concluded that hydrogen-fuelled engines were just as energy efficient as kerosene engines. However, it noted that conventional turbofan engines could be converted to run on hydrogen, saying that converting them could “take place within 15 to 20 years”.
Airbus flagged that the transition to hydrogen would require airports to invest considerable sums in building new hydrogen infrastructure.
A 2020 report by the Hydrogen Council estimated that global investments of around $70 billion would be needed to make hydrogen competitive by 2030.
“Together with the support from government and industrial partners, we can rise up to this challenge to scale up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry,” Airbus chief executive Faury said.