Airbus has pulled back the covers on three hydrogen-powered concepts for 'zero emission' commercial aircraft, which the company says airlines could be flying by 2035.
The European airplane maker says hydrogen "holds exceptional promise as a clean aviation fuel and is likely to be a solution for aerospace and many other industries to meet their climate-neutral targets."
Each of the three aircraft in what Airbus calls its ZEROe family showcases a different approach to hydrogen-based zero-emission flight.
“This is a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector as a whole and we intend to play a leading role in the most important transition this industry has ever seen," said Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury.
The Airbus ZEROe turboprop, capable of carrying up to 100 passengers, relies on twin 'hybrid hydrogen' turboprop engines, with liquid hydrogen storage and distribution behind a pressurised rear bulkhead. Capable of traveling more than 1,000 nautical miles, Airbus sees this as suitable for short-range trips.
The Airbus ZEROe turbofan – which looks something like a truncated A320neo – boosts passenger capacity to the 120-200 bracket while extending range to in excess of 2,000 nautical miles: sufficient for a transcontinental jaunt between Australia's east and west coasts.
Liquid hydrogen would be stored and distributed through tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead, with hydrogen fuel cells creating electric power that complements the gas turbine. Note that this occupies the rear third of the aircraft, with passengers generally seated forward of the wing.
Easily the most 'out there' member of the ZEROe family is this futuristic 'flying V' blended-wing body design, in which the wings merge with the main body of the aircraft.
With a 2,000nm range similar to that of the ZEROe turbofan, the unique design allows room for up to 200 passengers across a number of cabin configurations in the exceptionally wide fuselage, which also opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution.
The blended-wing plan is the most challenging out of the three designs, according to the company’s chief engineer, Jean-Brice Dumont.
If the company gets everything right immediately it can consider moving ahead with this "revolutionary" V-shaped model, he said. Otherwise it is likely to choose one of the other two, more classic designs and look at developing such an aircraft later.
Flying into a zero-emissions future
"The concepts we unveil today offer the world a glimpse of our ambition to drive a bold vision for the future of zero-emission flight,” said Faury.
"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."
Faury noted that the transition to hydrogen as a primary power source "will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem."
"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.”
High hopes for hydrogen
Hydrogen is becoming an increasing area of focus for Airbus as it evaluates technologies for emission-free flight.
The company is under pressure from the French and German governments, its biggest shareholders, to speed development of new aircraft after aiding the planemaker during the coronavirus crisis. Together, the two countries have committed some €2.5 billion euros (US$2.9 billion) toward cleaner propulsion.
While there are different approaches, hydrogen is likely to be used in aerospace and other industries to meet climate-neutral targets, Airbus said.
The company has already said it’s targeting the mid-2030s for the first zero-emission passenger jet. Developing a hydrogen aircraft on that timeline will be a real challenge because of the massive amounts of infrastructure and government investment required.
“The question is how big can we go with batteries,” said Glenn Llewellyn, vice president of zero-emissions technology at Airbus, in a briefing. “We don’t believe that it’s a today-relevant technology for commercial aircraft and we see hydrogen having more potential.”
Airbus plans to launch several hydrogen demonstrator programs over the next few months, but it expects it will take another two years to choose suppliers and manufacturing sites before the program is scheduled for around 2028, and the aircraft comes into service in 2035.
The success of any such program would depend on infrastructure at airports and support from governments to fund development, as well as incentives for airlines to retire older aircraft, Airbus said.
The company has already started discussions with airports, airlines and energy companies. It is also calling on governments to put the right incentives in place to push the industry to shift toward hydrogen power.
The French state is backing research into low-carbon flight and sees Airbus’ development of a hydrogen powered plane as the best answer to “aviation bashing,” French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on LCI Television Monday.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg