Airbus Unveils Designs For Hydrogen-Powered Aircraft Which Could Be Flying By 2035

Concept art of a hydrogen-powered “blended-wing body” design (up to 200 passengers) concept in which … [+] the wings merge wi...


This week Airbus, the biggest name in aerospace after Boeing

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, revealed three concepts for the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft which could enter service by 2035. Rather than traditional jet fuel (kerosene — an oil distillate) all three ‘ZEROe’ designs rely on hydrogen (H2) as their primary fuel source alongside batteries to power hybrid engines. According to Airbus:

“All three ZEROe concepts are hydrogen hybrid aircraft. They are powered by hydrogen combustion through modified gas-turbine engines. Liquid hydrogen is used as fuel for combustion with oxygen. In addition, hydrogen fuel cells create electrical power that complements the gas turbine, resulting in a highly efficient hybrid-electric propulsion system. All of these technologies are complementary, and the benefits are additive.”

If successful, this could represent a revolution in an industry that is still entirely monopolized by fossil fuels.

As I’ve discussed before, traditional hydrogen fuel cells can be thought of as batteries that never run flat as long as the H2 keeps coming. Pressurized hydrogen is the ‘fuel’ in the tank, which then interacts with oxygen (O2) in the air to create electricity through a chemical reaction.

Fuel cells are inherently more efficient than internal combustion engines (ICE), which must first convert chemical potential energy into heat, and then mechanical work. Fuel cells are also cleaner than traditional fuel sources: the only byproduct is warm air, vapor, and H2O – water—and its clean enough to drink. But that’s once the hydrogen is harvested. 

The majority of hydrogen is generated through fossil fuel-based processes like the steam reforming of natural gas and coal gasification. For truly ‘green’ hydrogen to be harvested, a more expensive and painstaking process called water electrolysis must be used. Nevertheless, hydrogen fuel cells are a promising advancement already being used in public transport systems and private vehicles around the globe.

The hydrogen fuel cell concept complements Airbus’ overarching goal to reduce fossil fuel consumption in its future fleets. At the Singapore airshow in February the manufacturer unveiled a new, revolutionary ‘blended wing body’ (BWB) passenger aircraft dubbed the ‘Maveric’ which promises to slash fuel consumption by 20 percent compared to today’s narrow-body (single-aisle) aircraft. The innovation – as the name suggests – blurs the line between aircraft body and wing. Also known as the ‘Delta Wing,’ this design generates lift across the entire fuselage rather than just the wings – meaning more power goes further – and reduces drag. Although the Maveric (pictured above) uses traditional jet fuel, the BWB design is being used in the 200 passenger variant of the ZEROe prototype.

Airbus is not the only company seeking to make commercial air travel more efficient. KLM Group, in collaboration with Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, announced last year their own blended wing ‘Flying V’ concept aircraft in celebration of KLM’s 100th anniversary.  Earlier this month the collaborative group launched a remotely-piloted scale model of the design with promising results.

More efficient blended-wing body aircraft coupled with hydrogen fuel cells stand to revolutionize the aviation industry. But massive challenges remain: airports worldwide will require significant hydrogen refueling infrastructure to meet the needs of day-to-day operations, global hydrogen production costs will need to come down, and oil prices will need to increase to justify the transition. Support from governments will be key to meet these ambitious objectives with increased funding for research & technology and a focused plan to either renew old aircraft or retire them by the fleet in order to meet zero-emissions goals.

2035 is an ambitious target for these experimental aircraft, but if the fuel economics make sense, these science fiction craft may soon become a science fact.

With Assistance from David Pasmanik and James Grant

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