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HYDROGEN POWER Airbus unveils plans for hydrogen powered airliner

| Author / Editor: Luke James / Johanna Erbacher

Aerospace giant Airbus has announced its plans for what it is calling the first commercial zero-emission aircraft which could be in service and carrying real passengers as early as 2035, well before the “net-zero” deadlines of many countries including the United Kingdom.

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The three ZEROe hydrogen-powered aircraft concepts. Top to bottom: turbofan, blended-wing body, and turboprop.
The three ZEROe hydrogen-powered aircraft concepts. Top to bottom: turbofan, blended-wing body, and turboprop.
(Source: Airbus)

Making air travel sustainable is one of today’s foremost challenges for the airline and aerospace industries. And for every positive step and leap forward made by the industry, rising passenger numbers and growing demand for air travel has led to two steps back. Now, Airbus claims that it’s ready to make a gigantic leap with its concepts for the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft.

In an announcement made in mid-September, Airbus unveiled three aeroplane concepts, all given the codename “ZEROe”. These include a turbofan design, a turboprop concept, and a blended-wing body.

While each of these concepts is different, all three are powered by hydrogen, a relatively new alternative fuel concept for the aviation industry.

Three different concepts

In a statement detailing the proposed aircraft, Airbus explained that the turbofan concept has a range of 2,000+ nautical miles and will be powered by a modified gas-turbine engine that runs on hydrogen through combustion. In this concept, the liquid hydrogen will be stored in and distributed by tanks located behind the rear bulkhead.

The next design concept, turboprop, will also be powered by hydrogen combustion in modified gas-turbine engines. Airbus says that turboprop will be able to travel 1,000+ nautical miles.

The final concept for a “blended-wing body” design will see the wings merge with the aircraft’s main body. Airbus says that the “exceptionally wide” fuselage in this concept opens up several options for hydrogen storage and distribution, and for the layout of the plane’s cabin itself.

“These concepts will help us explore and mature the design and layout of the world’s first climate-neutral, zero-emission commercial aircraft, which we aim to put into service by 2035,” said Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury.

An ambitious undertaking

It’s no secret that designing and building a hydrogen-powered aircraft is no easy feat; there’s a huge amount of complexity involved and not a huge margin for error. It’s important to remember that although hydrogen’s high energy density makes it an ideal candidate for powering aircraft, its low volume density will necessitate design changes such as larger fuel tanks.

There’s also the practical and safety considerations and implications of storing liquid hydrogen, as its storage requires great care. This could wind up being a critical issue when it comes to seeking approval from civil aviation authorities. Hydrogen is also highly explosive and should a tank rupture, for instance during a crash landing, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Despite these obvious concerns, Airbus remains hopeful.

“The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem. 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,” Faury concluded.

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