Airbus hoping to have a “green” hydrogen-fuelled test flight “in a few years”
There are huge technical problems for the aviation industry, in trying to fly commercial airliners on hydrogen. Some are that hydrogen is a tiny molecule, and needs very strong, heavy tanks to keep it in; it has to be compressed and kept cold, and needs large tanks. But now Airbus says it has signed a partnership agreement with CFM International, to try to produce a hydrogen demonstration programme, hoping to manage a test flights “in the new few years.” The demonstration will use an A380 flying testbed. It is hoped that the technology can be used “to assist with zero-emission flights by 2035.” Airbus first produced futuristic concept designs for a hydrogen- fuelled plane in 2020. At the time, Airbus hoped they could operate commercial hydrogen-powered flights by 2035. Of course, Airbus wants a lot of government investment (ie. taxpayer money) to increase the production of hydrogen and create hydrogen transport and refuelling systems. Hydrogen could only be a low-carbon jet fuel if it is produced entirely using low-carbon electricity. There are many other more important demands on renewably generated electricity. Under 1% of the hydrogen produced in 2019 was made using 100% renewably-powered processes.
See further down the page for more on why this is unlikely and probably unhelpful.
Airbus turns to hydrogen to assist zero-emission flight vision
25 February 2022
source edie newsroom
Airbus has agreed to a new partnership with engine manufacturers to enable the use of hydrogen in combustion engines, with an overall aim of integrating it into a zero-emission aircraft by 2035.
Airbus has signed a partnership agreement with CFM International, a 50/50 joint company between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines. The companies will work on a hydrogen demonstration programme, with an aim of delivering a test flight in the new few years.
Both ground and flight tests will be issued for a direct combustion engine fuelled by hydrogen. The demonstration will use an A380 flying testbed equipped with liquid hydrogen tanks prepared at Airbus facilities in France and Germany.
It is hoped that the technology can be used to assist with zero-emission flights by 2035.
“This is the most significant step undertaken at Airbus to usher in a new era of hydrogen-powered flight since the unveiling of our ZEROe concepts back in September 2020,” Airbus’ chief technical officer Sabine Klauke said.
“By leveraging the expertise of American and European engine manufacturers to make progress on hydrogen combustion technology, this international partnership sends a clear message that our industry is committed to making zero-emission flight a reality.”
Airbus first unveiled futuristic concept designs for zero-emission aircraft with hydrogen as the primary power source, back in 2020. At the time, the organisation claimed that they could operate commercial flights by 2035.
Airbus said in a statement that it believes hydrogen “holds exceptional promise as a clean aviation fuel” and has been working to design the concepts for several months.
Airbus has called the range of aircraft ‘ZEROe’ – short for zero-emission. It has said that governments and airports will need to provide “significant” investment in green hydrogen generation infrastructure and hydrogen transport and refuelling systems if the designs are to become a commercial reality in the coming decades.
On the former, less than 1% of the hydrogen produced in 2019 was made using 100% renewably-powered processes, according to Wood McKenzie.
Airbus is in alignment with the Air Transport Action Group’s climate ambitions to get the aviation industry to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Unless hydrogen is “green” hydrogen, or all CO2 produced is genuinely stored for ever, it is not a low carbon fuel
The DfT is pushing the idea of planes fuelled partly by hydrogen, as part of its “Jet Zero” strategy – hoping to find ways in which people can continue to fly, without huge carbon emissions that make reaching the UK target of net zero impossible. However, the Government’s “Jet Zero Council” said, at the end of June, that government was launching “the first round of £3 million Zero Emission Flight Infrastructure (ZEFI) competition, supporting development of infrastructure required to aid electric and hydrogen aircraft such as charge points for planes.” Hydrogen can be produced in various ways, most using a fossil fuel and producing CO2 in the process. The hydrogen could only be a “low carbon” fuel if all this CO2 is captured and stored, for ever – not just reused (which is what usually happens at present.) Now a study by academics at Cornell and Stanford universities in the US, warned that blue hydrogen (produced by ‘steam reforming’, needing carbon capture and storage for the CO2 created) could be up to 20% worse for the climate than fossil gas owing to the emissions that escape during its production, multiplied by the amount of gas required to make the equivalent amount of energy from hydrogen.
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.
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.
Primary colours of the rainbow of hydrogen:
Green hydrogen is extracted using a method that does not produce GHG emissions. As the name suggests, its production is sustainable and environmentally friendly. Green hydrogen is most commonly produced using a device called an electrolyser. Electrolysers use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The key to this method of producing green hydrogen is that the electricity that powers the electrolyser comes from renewable sources, such as wind, solar, which have no associated GHG emissions. There are also pathways to produce green hydrogen from waste biomass.
Blue hydrogen is produced using a process called ‘steam reforming’, which uses steam to separate hydrogen from natural gas. This process does produce GHGs, but carbon capture and storage technologies capture and store those emissions.
Grey hydrogen is also extracted from natural gas using steam reforming but in this case, relevant technologies don’t capture resulting emissions. Instead, they are released into the atmosphere.
Brown and black hydrogen
Brown hydrogen (made from brown coal) and black hydrogen (made from black coal) are produced via gasification. It’s an established process used in many industries that converts carbon-rich materials into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. As a result, gasification releases those by-products into the atmosphere.
However, if technology ends up storing those emissions, that hydrogen can sometimes be called blue.
Turquoise hydrogen describes hydrogen produced when natural gas is broken down into hydrogen and solid carbon via pyrolysis. This method uses heat to break down a material’s chemical make up. It’s seen as ‘low carbon’ as the hydrogen production process doesn’t emit any GHGs. But there can be emissions associated with the mining and transport of natural gas that is used as the starting product.