Airbus tells the EU hydrogen won’t be widely used in planes before 2050
Airbus has told the EU that most commercial planes will rely on traditional jet engines until at least 2050. They say they plan to develop the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035, but have not publicly said whether the technology will be ready for the replacement for the medium-haul A320, due to be rolled out in the 2030s. That seems unlikely, especially for long or medium haul flights. In its presentation to the EC, Airbus did not give details of its hydrogen technology, and how it could be introduced into small, short haul aircraft. The technology is very much still on the drawing board. Although research remains at an early stage, possible paths to replacement of the A320 are already a major focus of debate as rival Boeing ponders how to get lower carbon emissions from the competing 737 MAX and engine makers focus on evolving gas turbines. Boeing’s Chief Executive has said they will not be flying planes on hydrogen on a significant scale before 2050. A key problem for using hydrogen in future is the infrastructure needed globally to support it, as well as ensuring hydrogen is “green”, ie. made only from genuinely renewably sourced surplus electricity. In the meantime, airlines want to use “sustainable aviation fuel” (SAF), hoping some can be genuinely low carbon.
Airbus tells EU hydrogen won’t be widely used in planes before 2050
The plane maker says it plans to develop the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035, but has not publicly said whether the technology will be ready for the replacement for the medium-haul A320, due to be rolled out in the 2030s.
February’s briefing to EU officials appeared to rule this out.
“Zero-emission hydrogen aircraft will be primarily focused on regional and shorter-range aircraft from 2035. Which means that current and future iterations of highly efficient gas turbines will still be required as we move towards 2050, especially for long-haul operations,” the presentation said.
Slides from the presentation to the office of European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans were released by InfluenceMap, an investor-led climate lobbying watchdog which said it obtained them through a freedom of information request.
They were part of a wider set of documents issued by the watchdog, which said airlines and manufacturers had urged policymakers to use EU-backed green stimulus funds to support aviation. read more
Airbus declined detailed comment on the February meeting.
Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun last week ruled out using hydrogen on a significant scale before 2050.
Hydrogen has also taken centre-stage in talks over European government support for aviation during the COVID-19 crisis.
In June last year, France announced an increase in funding for the CORAC aviation research body including 1.5 billion euros over three years for technology such as hydrogen, rescuing 500 out of 15,000 jobs threatened by an Airbus restructuring.
In briefing notes, the finance ministry listed targets for investment including hydrogen as a primary energy source for a successor to the A320 that could enter service in 2033-2035.
TOO EARLY TO DECIDE
Industry officials have played down the prospect of a switch to hydrogen for the A320 family’s replacement because of the aircraft’s size and range, and infrastructure needed globally. Airbus says an A320 takes off or lands every 1.6 seconds.
Airbus officials say the research will, in any event, seed disruptive technology likely to play a role in the next generation of airplanes.
Airbus engineering chief Jean-Brice Dumont told the French AJPAE media association on Thursday that hydrogen was one of several paths towards the decarbonisation of aviation and it was too early to say in what part of the market it would be used.
“We are potentially slicing up the market in a different way but it is far too early to talk about it,” he said.
As an interim step, Airbus and others have called for more use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) in existing planes. Airbus said on Thursday it would test-fly an A320 with 100% SAF by the end of this year. Current regulations allow a 50% mix.
In February’s presentation, Airbus displayed industry forecasts suggesting the A320’s medium-haul category of 150-250 seats would be powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) first, and “potentially some hydrogen” from 2050.
A smaller niche between 100-150 seats, which includes its A220 and Embraer E2, would use electric power, hydrogen and/or SAF from 2040, while only regional 50-100 seaters would be ready for hydrogen in the 2030s.
Airbus currently serves that market through its 50-70-seat ATR turboprop co-venture with Italy’s Leonardo.
In September last year, Airbus presented three concepts for a hydrogen plane to enter service in 2035 including a turboprop, a traditional-looking twin-engined plane powered by hybrid-hydrogen engines and a more radical blended-wing body aircraft.
Airbus has said it will choose the final product for a new decarbonised plane in 2025. The briefing said it would also narrow down the choice of concept as early as mid-2022.
Hydrogen very unlikely to be used in long-haul planes; huge problems even for short-haul
There is a lot of hype around about planes eventually being fuelled by hydrogen. This is dangerous, because it gives the false impression that a solution to aviation CO2 is just around the corner, and no measures need to be taken to reduce demand. There are immense problems of using hydrogen in aircraft. Liquid hydrogen, which is easier to store onboard than gas, has to be kept at -253C or it boils off. The tanks to contain it are not only heavier but x4 the size of conventional fuel storage. This imposes constraints on range and capacity for airlines. It might be necessary to remove 25% of the passengers from a conventional single-aisle aircraft to fit in fuel tanks. If it proves possible, in a decade or more, to use hydrogen, its use would be confined to short-haul, and could not be used on long-haul, which produce the most CO2 (+ non-CO2 impact). Flights of over 1,500km account for roughly 80% of the sector’s carbon emissions, according to the industry’s ATAG. Even for the shorter-range aircraft, hydrogen’s deployment would require huge costs for new infrastructure, transport and storage. Airlines could face increased operational complexities and higher costs from mixed fleets. And burning hydrogen generates water vapour, which adds to aviation’s non-CO2 climate impact.
Hydrogen unlikely to become fuel for aircraft – it is no magic bullet solution for aviation CO2
Over the past decades many have investigated the possibility of using hydrogen as jet fuel, in the hope of keeping the aviation industry growing without massively increasing carbon emissions. A new paper from the Netherlands is enthusiastic about the use of hydrogen, saying it could be a good fuel as it is light. The professor writes: “It is a defect that kerosene is so irrationally cheap, which triggers much unnecessary air travel. A worldwide tax on kerosene – if at all politically possible – should be something to pursue.” However desirable it might be to fuel planes with hydrogen, the reasons it has been rejected in the past are first that producing hydrogen itself takes a huge amount of energy. Then it must be stored, very cold, in tanks far larger than (maybe 4 times as large) those used now on aircraft, even if stored as slush, not compressed gas. Metal hydride storage is also possible. All the options increase the weight of engines etc, outweighing the fact the hydrogen is lighter than kerosene. There could be challenges to using premixed injection with hydrogen rich fuel, since the reaction rate for hydrogen is faster than for jet fuel – there is a danger of flashback, which would have to be dealt with. The problem with contrails and non-CO2 impacts would be as great as with conventional jet fuel.