“We don’t need to change the laws of physics to go with hydrogen. Hydrogen has an energy density three times that of kerosene — is made for aviation,” Faury told reporters at an Airbus event on sustainability in Toulouse. Europe’s aerospace champion is increasingly confident that 2035 is a “fair and realistic perspective” for a hydrogen plane to enter service, despite scepticism among other industry leaders about how quickly the gas can make an impact on aviation emissions.
Airbus, said Faury, needed to have a “degree of certainty” of the regulatory environment and the availability of the fuel by 2027/28, when the company will have to decide whether or not to invest billions in a new hydrogen plane programme.
Faury’s comments signal Airbus’s growing confidence that the company will be able to tackle the complex engineering and safety challenges needed to make hydrogen-powered aircraft work. Faury warned, however, that government and regulatory support would be needed.
Faury’s remarks underline the increasing urgency in the aviation industry as it strives to meet zero-emission targets by 2050. Before the pandemic led to the grounding of much of the global aircraft fleet, aviation accounted for roughly 2.4 per cent of global emissions.
The pressure to curb emissions has only accelerated since the crisis. The summit in Toulouse brought together airlines, airports and policymakers in an attempt to galvanise a co-operative approach on how to burn less kerosene.
Aerospace companies are working on a number of different technologies, from “sustainable aviation fuels” to electric batteries and hydrogen. Rolls-Royce, the UK aero-engineer, is currently testing an all-electric plane. Many are also backing new start-ups that promise a revolution in urban air mobility through the use of air taxis.
In Toulouse, John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow airport, called on airlines to help trigger the use of sustainable aviation fuels, telling the audience: “If we don’t get to net zero by 2050, we won’t have a business. The faster we scale up sustainable aviation fuels, the faster we can decarbonise aviation.”
Guillaume Faury, Airbus chief executive © JV. Reymondon
Airbus, along with its peers, agrees that there is no one “silver bullet” and that a variety of solutions will be needed to address the decarbonisation challenge. It too is working on different technologies, including sustainable aviation fuels.
But differences remain about the speed at which the industry can make hydrogen happen and Airbus’s enthusiasm is not shared by everyone.
“At Airbus, we decided to take the bull by the horns,” said Faury. “We’ve seen the engine makers significantly change their views on hydrogen, which is very positive.”
Engineers at the European plane maker are working on several different zero-emission concepts, all of which rely on hydrogen as their primary power source.
The number of technical challenges are large. Sabine Klauke, Airbus chief technical officer, said the need to liquefy the hydrogen and store it at minus 253 degrees centigrade was an obvious hurdle. The special double-skinned tanks needed to contain the substance are four times the size of conventional fuel storage and would need to be accommodated into the body of the aircraft.
Even if the technology hurdles can be overcome, the investments needed to build up the supply of “green” hydrogen made by renewables, to change the storage requirements at airports and associated infrastructure, will be enormous. Following the pandemic Europe’s governments, notably France and Germany, have committed significant sums towards helping the industry decarbonise, including through the use of hydrogen.
Detractors point out the really big dent in the industry’s carbon footprint will only come from tackling the most polluting segment of aviation — 73 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions come from medium and long-haul flights, according to the Air Transport Action Group.
Airbus says it is likely initially to produce a regional or shorter-range aircraft.
“Not only do you want to reduce CO2, you want to come close to eliminating it by 2050. Time is of the essence and solutions that require replacing trillion dollars worth of aeroplanes and airport infrastructure with technology that won’t be mature for a decade or two won’t get you there,” he said.
Alan Epstein, a former industry executive and professor of Aeronautics at MIT, argues that sustainable aviation fuels are the only “practical solution” to greening commercial aviation.