Airbus has grand plans for a zero emissions commercial aircraft to be carrying passengers by 2035. The company announced a trio of designs this week, dubbed the ZEROe fleet to could accomplish that goal. Most notable is not the aircraft design, however, but that they are all powered by hydrogen rather than traditional jet fuel or even sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). In doing so the aircraft manufacturer shifted the conversation away from airframe design and placed it squarely on the fuels as the target for reducing emissions.
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.x– Guillaume Faury, Airbus CEO
Two of the three planes are very similar to existing designs. A single-aisle aircraft that mimics the A320 family, albeit with a longer tail section for hydrogen storage, is spec’d to carry 120-200 passengers on a transcontinental trip.
A second model is an adaptation of the ATR turboprop, with a range of 1000+ miles.
The third design is more adventurous, with a blended-wing body that dramatically shifts the concept of what a commercial aircraft looks like today. It also delivers more options for hydrogen storage and cabin layouts.
Also, Airbus is quick to remind the industry that these are concepts, not necessarily business plans or what will really fly. The company wants 3-5 years yet to figure out what things should really look like.
The Hydrogen Challenge
Hydrogen today is not a particularly environmentally friendly fuel source. Even with reduced carbon emissions as it is consumed, the production of the fuel is heavily dependent on burning fossil fuels. Airbus acknowledges this problem, targeting green production methods, including wind, solar and other renewable sources to generate the fuel. It also is very clear that those pathways will require massive investment. And Airbus does not plan to fund that entirely on its own.
Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury suggests the shift to hydrogen power “will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem.” He also calls for “support from government and industrial partners…to scale-up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry.”
This call for government and industry investment, both in generating the hydrogen and in the transport and distribution infrastructure, is not unique. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers also pressed for similar investments in SAFs. The SAF volumes are growing but the Airbus shift here risks stunting that growth. The massive capital investment is predicated on long-term returns, tied to long-term demand for the product. A need for more traditional kerosene-compatible fuels will not erode immediately, of course. But shifting too much of that investment to hydrogen too soon could hamper the SAFs development at a time where that work faces a critical tipping point in delivering at scale and a price point that will be useful to the industry.
A pivot from battery power
The hydrogen-powered aircraft news comes five months after Airbus and Rolls-Royce shut down their E-Fan X project. That multi-year effort was supposed to deliver a hybrid-electric option, with one of four engines running on battery power. The program aimed for a test flight in 2021 but was halted as “the actual requirement to carry out a test flight with all the elements integrated is not critical at this time,” According to Rolls-Royce CTO Paul Stein. At that time Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini suggested that Airbus was not satisfied with the incremental change that the E-Fan X demonstrator would deliver. Instead the company wants to “take an even bolder approach to reduce CO2 emissions.” It turns out that hydrogen-powered flight is the bolder approach.
Battery options are not completely dead. They could still make sense for smaller aircraft or even a hybrid hydrogen-electric model from Airbus. But for most transport-sized planes new fuel options are needed.
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Jackson Henderson says
Why not focus on China which outputs a tremendous amount of greenhouse gases and pollutants. Pushing to hydrogen is dangerous and the whole development process wastes more energy than it saves.
Seth Miller says
Ignoring the emissions of aviation because there are other problems is an insufficient approach to the problem.
I harbor similar skepticism that hydrogen is a perfect solution and included a few of the reasons in the story above. But progress must be made from multiple angles.
Great article Seth. Too many want to see a simplistic solution to our problems, but you correctly address that, if there were an easy answer, it would have been done. Turns out science is hard!
I think we are making a mistake worrying about the future generations. Those shits can take care of themselves. In the meantime we should use as much cheap gas as we can.
Jackson Henderson says
You’re probably joking but the last part is accurate. Aviation is responsible for a tiny portion of emissions (something to the tune of .7% of green house gas emissions). It’s wasteful and counterproductive to focus on expanding clean energy to powering jet aircraft when ground based clean energy is more efficient, affordable, and practicable. Moving toward electric vehicles in the next 30 years makes sense; battery or hydrogen powered aircraft don’t. So much energy, emissions, and costs have to go into designing hydrogen powered systems for aircraft that it will cause more environmental damage than necessary. Somethings are ideally powered by fuel and planes are one of them.
This country finally achieved energy independence and is a net exporter. We faced 50 years of opec and Middle East/North African countries extracting hoards of wealth from us. It’s self harm to destroy millions of jobs and a big export from the energy sector when China isn’t going to stop their terrible pollution. The U.S., Canada, and Europe are already very clean. The U.S. doesn’t even have the big manufacturing industries since they went to China and Mexico. It’s foolish to handicap ourselves especially when it is premature. Green energy is growing and will dominate the future. There’s no reason to bankrupt so many now when it won’t even address the environment (China).
Seth Miller says
You’re significantly underestimating the impact of aviation on global GHGs, probably by a factor of 4-5x.
There is good reason to focus on battery tech on the ground and other solutions in the air. Planes cannot stop nearly as often or easily to recharge.
And choosing to pretend that nothing can change because some other groups won’t also change is mutually assured destruction. It is a bad path to pursue.