Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Is it possible that zero-emission commercial aircraft could take flight in the next fifteen years?
Airbus, one of the world’s leading aircraft makers, says it believes so.
Airbus said it hopes to release the world’s first climate-neutral, zero-emissions aircraft into service by 2035, and eventually work to remove carbon emissions from the aviation sector entirely, according to manufacturing.net.
Airline travel is one of the worst contributors to global warming and climate change, as global air travel, a carbon intensive sector, is posed to grow rapidly in coming decades (before the pandemic-related setbacks, that is).
Airbus released its ZEROe project on Monday, outlining a trio of concept aircrafts powered by hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel produces only water vapor as a byproduct of its use.
Two of the Airbus concepts would be powers with liquid hydrogen in modified gas-turbine engines:
Airbus' ZEROe Turbofan Concept Aircraft (Photo Courtesy Airbus)
The first is a turbofan concept able to travel more than 2,000 nautical miles with up to 200 passengers on board.
Airbus' ZEROe Turboprop Concept Aircraft (Photo Courtesy Airbus)
The second aircraft would be a smaller turbo-prop plane that would carry up to 100 passengers on short-haul flights up to 1,000 nautical miles.
Airbus' ZEROe Blended-Wing Body (BWB) Concept Aircraft (Photo Courtesy Airbus)
Its third concept is based on Airbus’ “blended wing” design inspired by military planes, which merges the wings and fuselage to give the appearance of one giant wing. This design breaks from the conventional tube-shaped fuselage we’re used to seeing in commercial fleets.
The design of the aircraft alone could reduce fuel consumption for the plane by up to 20%, Airbus said. It also said that aircraft could carry up to 200 passengers with a design that offers numerous potential options for cabin layout and fuel storage.
These designs are impressive and part of an awesome, albeit lofty goal. First Airbus will need to design and build a completely new aircraft (not to mention, get it certified for commercial use). Then, in order for these aircraft to be used airports around the world that use their aircraft will need sufficient hydrogen transportation and refueling systems. This means adding to or overhauling the current airport infrastructure on a large scale.
The process of producing hydrogen fuel can create emissions, and it consumes too much energy for even hydrogen-fueled cars to have much support.
Hydrogen has an energy density almost three times that of gasoline by mass—120 megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg) versus 44 MJ/kg. However, by volume liquid hydrogen’s energy density sits at 8 megajoules per liter and gasoline’s is at 32. This means to get more energy from the same volume of gasoline, hydrogen needs to be compressed, and this makes it heavier.
Fuel makes up almost half the total weight of a long-haul jet, and it’s also a determining factor of an aircraft’s range. Switching current aircraft from jet fuel to liquid hydrogen would require several times more volume in the tanks or transporting less weight onboard the aircraft (ie. fewer passengers).
With these new designs, Airbus has taken these hurdles into consideration.
“The transition to hydrogen as the primary power source for these concept planes will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem,” said Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury. “Together with the support from government and industrial partners we can rise up to this challenge to scale up renewable energy and hydrogen for the sustainable future of the aviation industry.”