Airbus plots course for zero-emission hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft to enter service in 2035
The three ZEROe concept aircraft
Tue 22 Sept 2020 – Airbus has unveiled three zero-emission concept commercial aircraft that could enter service by 2035, each relying on hydrogen as a primary power source. The three hydrogen hybrid aircraft designs, all codenamed ZEROe, include a turbofan design aircraft powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen rather than jet kerosene, a similarly powered turboprop aircraft and a blended-wing body aircraft design. The turbofan and blended-wing body aircraft would have a range of around 2,000 nautical miles and carry up to 200 passengers, with the short-haul turboprop capable of carrying up to 100 passengers on flights of 1,000 nautical miles. Airbus expects to launch a hydrogen ground demonstrator aircraft next year and undertake a first flight of a demonstrator in 2025. CEO Guillaume Faury said the announcement of the ZEROe programme was an historic moment for the commercial aviation sector and the most important transition the industry had yet seen.
“The concepts offer the world a glimpse of our ambition to drive a bold vision for the future of zero-emission flight,” he said. “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.”
Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini said liquid hydrogen – formed when freezing hydrogen gas at -253 degrees C – had the same energy level as fossil jet fuel and a third of the weight but its volume was four times as much, which required a redesign of aircraft. The turbofan design would see the liquid hydrogen stored and distributed via tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead, while the exceptionally wide fuselage of the blended-wing body opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution, and for cabin layout, explained Airbus. In addition to using liquid hydrogen as fuel for combustion with oxygen, hydrogen fuel cells can create electrical power that complements the gas turbine, resulting in a highly efficient hybrid-electric propulsion system, it said. The company estimates hydrogen has the potential to reduce aviation’s CO2 emissions by up to 50%.
The demonstrator programme will evaluate and validate the concept aircraft and assess whether they could be matured into viable future products, with efforts focused on a number of technological pathways. “It is fundamental to get this right,” said Vittadini. If all goes to plan, Airbus expects to make a final selection on the hydrogen technology pathway in 2024, with a full-scale aircraft prototype estimated to arrive towards the end of the decade. “The timeline is ambitious but our conviction is strong,” she added.
“As recently as five years ago, hydrogen propulsion wasn’t even on our radar as a viable emission-reduction technology pathway,” explained Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus VP, Zero Emission Aircraft. “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.”
“The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem,” cautioned Faury.
Examples include airports being required to add significant hydrogen transport and refuelling infrastructure to meet the needs of day-to-day operations. Airbus called on governments to also help meet the objectives through funding support for research and mechanisms to encourage the use of sustainable fuels, and renewal of aircraft fleets to allow airlines to retire older, less environmentally-friendly aircraft earlier.
“Together with the support from government and industrial partners, we can rise to this challenge to scale up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry,” said Faury.
Commenting on the Airbus announcement, Harry Boneham, Aerospace and Defense Associate Analyst at data and analytics company GlobalData, said: “This signals that Airbus recognises the environmental impact of commercial aviation and is realigning to conform to a market in which consumers demand climate responsibility. It has been identified that zero-emission aircraft with a range of up to 1,200nm will reduce airport NOx emissions by 60%, reduce fuel use and direct CO2 emissions by 40%, and account for 80% of all departures. Given that the capabilities of these models exceed this threshold, Airbus has positioned itself in a commanding position for the medium and long-term market.
“Additionally, that the passenger capacity is comparable to contemporary narrow-body aircraft, such as the A320neo and B737 MAX, is also encouraging. This will make for an easier transition from these older models to the zero-emission designs, as it will be a straight swap with little adaptation to fleet size and flight frequency necessary. In order not to lose market share, particularly in the narrow-body segment, Boeing must now develop its own low-emission offerings. Ultimately, these developments are positive for the industry, pushing it in a direction which is sustainable and aligns with shifting passenger demand.”
AirbusZEROe Turbofan Concept:
Airbus ZEROe Turboprop Concept:
Airbus ZEROe Blended-Wing Concept:
Launch of ZEROe zero-emission commercial aircraft programme by Grazia Vittadini, CTO; Jean-Brice Dumont, EVP Engineering; and Glenn Llewellyn, VP Head of Zero Emission Aircraft: