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Hydrogen powered flight may be only 15 years away

The world’s first zero emissions commercial aircraft could enter into service by 2035, according to aerospace company Airbus, which unveiled three new concept planes that rely purely on hydrogen as the primary energy source.

The concepts, according to Airbus, each represent a different approach to achieving zero-emission flight but all rely on hydrogen rather than jet fuel to power the planes.

Airbus believes hydrogen powered flight is the likely solution for aerospace, and many other industries, to meeting their emissions targets.

The first concept is most like a commercial aircraft but with longer more flexible wings. This can seat 120-200 passengers and has a range of over 2,000 nautical miles. The second, designed for short-haul flights, uses a turboprop engine and can travel more than 1,000 nautical miles. The third can carry up to 200 passengers and has wings that merge with the main body of the aircraft.

“This is a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector as a whole,” said Guillaume Faury, Airbus CEO. “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.”

Turbulence ahead

But developing hydrogen powered flight in such a tight timeline will be a significant challenge because of the massive amounts of infrastructure and government investment required.

If the aviation industry is to transition to hydrogen as the primary power source, it will require “decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem together,” according to Airbus.

In addition, airports will require significant hydrogen transport and refuelling infrastructure upgrades. And to transition to this  incredibly expensive energy source, industry will need huge support from governments.

Comparing hydrogen to electric powered flight, Glenn Llewellyn, vice president of zero-emissions technology at Airbus said: “The question is how big can we go with batteries…We don’t believe that it’s a today-relevant technology for commercial aircraft and we see hydrogen having more potential.”

Most hydrogen used today is extracted from natural gas, which creates carbon emissions.

However, Airbus said the hydrogen used for aviation would be produced from renewable energy and extracted from water with electrolysis. That’s a carbon-free process if powered by renewable electricity, which will only get cheaper as fossil fuel energy is gradually replaced.

Take action

It’ll be some years before hydrogen powered flight is a reality and the aviation industry is climate neutral. In the meantime, find how you can lighten your travel carbon footprint and more through the icons below.

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