Airbus develops zero-emission concept planes, but experts doubt idea will fly

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Airbus has revealed three concepts for hydrogen-powered planes. The aircraft would produce zero emissions.
Airbus has revealed three concepts for hydrogen-powered planes. The aircraft would produce zero emissions. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Airbus

Airbus has laid out a new potential path to moving the airline industry toward its goal of reducing emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2050.

The Toulouse, France-based aerospace giant last month revealed three concepts for what it says could be the world's first zero-emissions aircraft, with entry into service coming by 2035. Each of the concepts would make use of hydrogen as the primary source of power.

Some industry experts, however, question the efficacy of pouring resources into development of hydrogen-powered aircraft rather than keeping the focus on ramping up production and development of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is already being used on aircraft today.

Under Airbus' first hydrogen-powered concept, a turbofan jet engine would be modified to run on hydrogen rather than jet fuel. The aircraft would seat 120 to 200 passengers and could fly 2,300 or more miles.

The second concept involves a plane of up to 100 passengers that would be powered by a turboprop engine rather than a turbofan. Like the first concept, the engine would be modified to run on hydrogen. The craft would be geared toward short-haul flying, with a range of up to 1,150 miles.

Airbus calls its third concept a "blended-wing-body" design. Wings on the aircraft would merge with the main body of the plane, providing an especially wide fuselage, which would offer multiple options both for cabin layout and for the location of the hydrogen storage and distribution units. Airbus envisions the hydrogen-powered, blended-wing-body aircraft seating up to 200 passengers and having a range of approximately 2,300 miles.

"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," Guillaume Faury, Airbus' CEO, said as the company unveiled the concepts. 

The aerospace giant has the support of the French government in its hydrogen initiative. France has committed $1.7 billion toward research of hydrogen-powered aircraft as part of a $17 billion Covid-19 rescue package for the French aerospace industry. 

However, participants in a recent virtual panel on aviation and carbon offsetting, which was hosted by the luxury ecoresorts brand Regenerative Travel and moderated by this article's reporter, argued that governments and aviation industry stakeholders should keep their hydrogen work focused on its potential to be refined into a synthetic SAF. A hydrogen synthetic could augment existing SAF feedstocks, including spent animal fats, vegetable oils and garbage.
SAF reduces emissions by approximately 70% compared to traditional kerosene-based jet fuel.

Adam Klauber, senior technical advisor for sustainable aviation at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, said that it's important to remain focused on SAF because it can be dropped into existing aircraft, which have a lifespan of 30 years. 

Hydrogen-powered aircraft like the ones Airbus envisions, Klauber said, can be developed by 2035. But he added, "They will not have a significant impact benefit for the climate, because we need to reduce these emissions now, especially in the next 10 years, which are the most critical when it comes to climate stability."

Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Fuels Initiative, a U.S.-based coalition charged with bringing SAF to market, offered an even more negative assessment.

He said that hydrogen-powered aircraft would still contribute to climate change because hydrogen emits water vapor, which is a greenhouse gas, and also emits nitrogen oxide. 

Furthermore, a transition to hydrogen-powered aircraft would also require a transformation of the world's fuel distribution systems. The overall expense, Csonka said, could be triple to quintuple what has been estimated to bring SAF to scale. 

Currently, though, SAF production levels remain tiny. IATA estimates that just 13 million gallons of SAF are produced annually compared with the 90 billion gallons of jet fuel that airplanes were consuming each year prior to the Covid-19 crisis. IATA would like to see production increase to 1.8 billion gallons by 2025, the quantity it says would be a tipping point at which prices drop and purchases snowball. 

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