The European aerospace company on Monday released three different aircraft concepts, each exploring a different approach to achieving zero-emission flight but all relying on hydrogen as a primary power source.
“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,” Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said in a statement.
The first concept could carry between 120 and 200 passengers across some 2,000 nautical miles. The turbofan design would be powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen, rather than jet fuel, through combustion.
The second concept, a turboprop design, would carry up to 100 passengers over 1,000 nautical miles, while the third one, a “blended-wing body” design, would welcome up to 200 passengers for a 2,000 nautical miles trip.
“Hydrogen has a different volumetric energy density than jet fuel so we have to study other storage options and aircraft architectures than existing ones” Jean-Brice Dumont, Airbus EVP Engineering, said.
“This means the visual appearance of our future zero-emission aircraft will change. These three configurations provide us with some exciting options for further exploration,” he went on
Airbus engineers are to start working on hydrogen demonstrator programmes over the coming months to test hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen combustion technologies with the aim to have a full-scale aircraft prototype ready by the late 2020s.
“As recently as five years ago, hydrogen propulsion wasn’t even on our radar as a viable emission-reduction technology pathway, Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus VP, Zero-Emission Aircraft, noted.
“But convincing data from other transport industries quickly changed all that. Today, we’re excited by the incredible potential hydrogen offers aviation in terms of disruptive emissions reduction,” he added.
Direct emissions from aviation account for about three per cent of the European Union’s total greenhouse gas emissions and more than two per cent of global emissions, according to the EU Commission.
In 2020, global annual international aviation emissions are around 70 per cent higher than in 2005 and they could grow by a further 300 per cent by 2050.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation estimates that that it will be physically possible to meet 100 per cent of international jet fuel demand with sustainable aviation fuels by 2050 and that this would correspond to a 63 per cent reduction in emissions.
It cautions however that “this level of fuel production could only be achieved with extremely large capital investments in sustainable aviation fuel production infrastructure,T and substantial policy support.”
Faury stressed on Monday that “decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem” as well as “support from government and industrial partners” will be needed for the company to reach its 2035 target.
The EU aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral region by 2050 and has made hydrogen a cornerstone of its strategy.
Hydrogen is a gas that makes up 75 per cent of the universe and which does not emit any carbon dioxide when used but it is difficult to isolate. A new European Clean Hydrogen Alliance aims to invest €430 billion until 2030 to scale up the hydrogen value chain across the Old Continent.