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Hydrogen-powered planes: pie in the sky?

By March 14, 2021January 4th, 2022No Comments

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Hydrogen-powered planes: pie in the sky?

Mar 14, 2021 • Financial Times

Airbus plans fly against the many challenges in how to reduce aviation’s role in global warming by 2050

Hydrogen is back on the aerospace agenda, spurred by the need to resolve one of commercial aviation’s most urgent challenges: how to radically reduce its role in global warming by 2050, when many countries are committed to net neutrality on carbon emissions under the Paris accord.

“Hydrogen is one of the technologies to take us there,” said Grazia Vittadini chief technology officer at Airbus, which is planning to have a zero-emission, hydrogen-powered aircraft ready for service by 2035. The project is a flagship of the EU’s multibillion-euro COVID-19 stimulus package, aimed at greening the bloc’s economy.

Yet not everyone shares Airbus’s confidence. Boeing takes a more cautious view. “Our belief is that it will take a while for all the technology and elements of hydrogen propulsion to be worked out before we can get to . . . commercial use,” said Sean Newsum, director of environmental strategy at Boeing Commercial. “Our belief is that sustainable aviation fuels are a higher near-term priority.”

Aviation remains one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise. Nothing propels a commercial aircraft as efficiently and economically as fossil fuel.

Before the pandemic grounded the world’s passenger fleet, aviation accounted for about 2.4% of global emissions. Including non-carbon effects such as nitrogen oxide and contrails — icy vapour trails left in an aircraft’s wake — aviation’s environmental impact rises to about 3.5 per cent, according to Manchester Metropolitan University’s Centre for Aviation, Transport and the Environment.

As other sectors move more quickly to cut their carbon impact, aviation’s share will increase. According to the May 2020 Hydrogen-Powered Aviation report although CO2 emissions per passenger flight have fallen 54% since 1990 thanks to better engines and improved operations, the total volume has jumped 34% over the past five years because of rising air traffic.

Even the keenest advocates admit hydrogen technology will initially be limited to smaller, shorter-range aircraft. The result is that hydrogen — much like electric batteries — is not likely to serve the dirtiest segment of aviation in any substantial way before 2050, and not without a radical redesign of aircraft. Flights of more than 1,500km account for roughly 80 per cent of the sector’s carbon emissions, according to the industry’s Air Transport Action Group.

“Somewhere there is likely to be a role for hydrogen and we will be ready,” said Michael Winter, senior fellow for advanced technology at US aero-engine group Pratt & Whitney. “But hydrogen will be really hard. Not insurmountable, but really hard.”

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