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.
A favor to ask while you're here...
Did you enjoy the content? Or learn something useful? Or generally just think this is the type of story you'd like to see more of? Consider supporting the site through a donation (any amount helps). It helps keep me independent and avoiding the credit card schlock.