Airbus reveals hydrogen-powered aircraft designs

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Airbus' three designs for zero-emissions aircraft. Aircraft designers continue to work on sustainability issues.
Airbus' three designs for zero-emissions aircraft. Aircraft designers continue to work on sustainability issues. Photo Credit: Airbus

Airbus has revealed three concepts for what it says could be the world's first zero-emissions aircraft, with entry into service coming by 2035.

And each of the concepts would make use of hydrogen as the primary source of power.

Under the first concept, a turbofan jet engine would be modified to run on hydrogen, rather than jet fuel. Liquid hydrogen would be distributed via tanks located near the back of plane. 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, which 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 shorthaul 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.

The concept has some of the same principles as the Flying V, an aircraft that is in early development stages; Airbus is collaborating on it with the Netherlands' Delft University of Technology. The Flying V would integrate the cabin, the cargo hold and fuel storage in the aircraft's wings. Engineers believe that design, not accounting for changes in fuel type, would be 20% more efficient than today's most advanced widebody, the Airbus A350, due to its improved aerodynamic shape and reduced weight.

Airbus envisions the hydrogen-powered "blended-wing body" aircraft seating up to 200 passengers and having a range of approximately 2,300 miles.

"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," Guillaume Faury, Airbus' CEO, said in prepared statement Monday.

"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."  

Aviation currently accounts for approximately 2.5% of global emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

Prior to the onset of Covid-19, one of the most pressing issues confronting the industry globally was a push by climate activists for airlines to reduce emissions. Known as flight shaming, the movement was initiated by teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Experts expect ecofriendly initiatives and promises will survive the pandemic.

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Airbus, which is based in Toulouse, France, 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.

Sustainable jet fuels and electric- or hybrid electric-powered aircraft are other technologies that have the potential to reduce airline industry emissions. Electric aircraft engines are still in relatively early stages of development. However, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is being used by airlines. Production levels remain tiny, though. IATA estimates that just 13 million gallons of SAF are produced annually. The trade group 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.

Globally, airlines have committed to reducing emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2050.

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