There are plenty of obstacles standing in the way of developing the first zero-emission, hydrogen-powered plane. It’s tricky to safely store and use the highly combustible fuel. There aren’t any airports equipped to refuel jets with it. And the cost of hydrogen itself is prohibitive, at least if you want to avoid producing greenhouse gases. Yet in September, Airbus SE gave itself five years to develop a commercially viable hydrogen aircraft. The world’s biggest planemaker has the backing of its stakeholders—the French, Spanish, and German governments, who have pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050—and billions of euros in government subsidies. Even with help it’s going to be a herculean task that will require reinventing the trillion-dollar aviation industry.
Hydrogen wasn’t the company’s first option. Airbus engineers spent years studying the potential of using batteries to store electricity on planes with Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, only to shelve the project earlier this year. While batteries make sense in cars and buses, the relatively low levels of energy they produce means anything that could carry enough charge for a long-haul flight would be too heavy for an aircraft.
“Hydrogen is the most promising energy type to allow us to power aircraft and aviation with renewable energy,” says Glenn Llewellyn, the engineer leading Airbus’ moonshot experiment. “Battery technology is not evolving at the pace required for us to achieve our ambition.”
The project is currently the world’s best shot at achieving flight that doesn’t pollute the planet. It could put an end to emissions that are set to persist long after city grids are running on 100% clean energy and electric vehicles have become mainstream. And it will make eco-conscious travelers feel less guilty about contributing to global warming every time they step on a plane.
The aviation industry added more than 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2019, according to BloombergNEF. While emissions are set to plummet this year because of Covid-19, that drop will be temporary.
Unlike fossil fuels, which emit planet-warming carbon dioxide when they’re burned, hydrogen mostly produces water vapor. Today, most hydrogen is used in oil refining and chemical manufacturing, and it’s almost always made from natural gas or coal. But it can also be generated, at higher cost, by running an electric current through water. If that process is powered by renewable energy such as wind and solar, it’s possible to use the fuel without producing any CO₂.
This is what Airbus plans to do. The company estimates that green hydrogen has the potential to halve the aviation industry’s emissions—a tantalizing prospect given that clean energy research group BloombergNEF projects that those emissions are set to double globally by 2050.
Llewellyn’s team is studying three designs: a classic commercial aircraft, a turboprop plane, and a new model that blends the wing into the body of the jet. All of them will use hydrogen in modified gas turbines to propel the engines, and in fuel cells to create electrical power.