Airbus Launches Hydrogen-Powered ZEROe Initiative

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Airbus rolled back the curtain on its three-ship ZEROe program, intended to bring “zero emissions” aircraft to service in just 15 years. At the heart of these three concepts is hydrogen power, and show deployed in a conventional turbofan twin, a turboprop twin, and a futuristic lifting body transport. 

“This is a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector as a whole and we intend to play a leading role in the most important transition this industry has ever seen. The concepts we unveil today offer the world a glimpse of our ambition to drive a bold vision for the future of zero-emission flight,” 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.”  

According to Airbus, one of the two more conventional designs seating 120-200 passengers and resembling a modern turbofan airliner will have a range of 2,000+ NM and be “capable of operating transcontinentally and powered by a modified gas-turbine engine running on hydrogen, rather than jet fuel, through combustion. The liquid hydrogen will be stored and distributed via tanks located behind the rear pressure bulkhead.” In its presentation, Airbus also noted that hydrogen can be used to create electricity through fuel cells, and that it would use that as a source to power electric motors.

The turboprop-appearing regional transport will carry up to 100 passengers “using a turboprop engine instead of a turbofan and also powered by hydrogen combustion in modified gas-turbine engines, which would be capable of traveling more than 1,000 nautical miles, making it a perfect option for short-haul trips,” according to Airbus.

The futuristic “blended-wing body” proposal can carry up to 200 passengers “with a range similar to that of the turbofan concept. The exceptionally wide fuselage opens up multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution, and for cabin layout,” says Airbus. Similar to the MAVERIC concept launched earlier this year, the blended-wing design, which is envisioned as a step after the turboprop and turbofan ideas, would use hydrogen fuel cells to power eight electric motors.

“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 Faury. “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.”

Airbus says it will have to determine specific technologies in the very near term. A ground demonstrator of the hydrogen-fueled engines is expected next year, with flight tests starting in 2023. The company admits that infrastructure will be a challenge, and expects contributions from government entities to help pick up the slack.

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41 COMMENTS

  1. “The transition to hydrogen…will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem.” …and a new miraculous way to produce hydrogen using less energy. Since producing hydrogen by electrolysis is only 82% efficient at best, these aircraft will require 22% more energy than today’s jet-fuel powered aircraft.

  2. Now that Boeing is insolvent and bogged down dealing with major production issues, Airbus should be mostly unchallenged developing new propulsion systems.. The major issue will be keeping a highly unstable hydrogen system, stable.. Look to the fuel cells and methods learned developing those hydrogen energy sources.. I hope they’re successful..

  3. Have these people heard of the Hindenburg disaster? Have they not heard that flying airliners isn’t 100% safe and they sometimes crash?

    Since they’re looking for help from the entire aviation “ecosystem,” … perhaps they need to pay a little attention to a guy who’s pretty widely known in those circles … Burt Rutan … who was one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2004 and who also was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal for his work on Voyager plus two Collier trophies. He has a little something to say about anthropogenic global warming:

    http://www.iceagenow.com/Burt_Rutan_calls_AGW_a_Fraud.htm

    If you can find the YouTube video … it’s an hour worth spending. I think YouTube took it down ??

    • Burt Rutan is a magnificent aeronautical engineer, but a lousy climate scientist. The evidence is overwhelming that not only is climate warming real (and accelerating), but also overwhelming that it is exacerbated by human activities. Most pilots know a lot about weather, but much less about climate.

      • Fine, Chris. Now explain to me why ice core samples from 10k years ago had HIGHER amounts of CO2 than today …

        And when the Sun turns into a red dwarf and incinerates anyone left here … then how will driving a Tesla save anyone.

        Watch the Rutan YouTube video then report back…

  4. How much energy is required to electrolyse and liquify hydrogen on a grand scale? To transport it and to store it? And what will be the “zero emissions” sources of this energy?

    What lightweight materials will be used to fabricate liquid-hydrogen fuel tanks? Wer’re not talking about one-shot Saturn-5s. These tanks have to endure 20 years of four-times-per-day cycles of filling and emptying – with combustable cryogenic material. Maybe they’ll just need to be replaced at some frequency.

    Airframe icing on the ramp, on a humid summer day?

    Given the proposed airframe location of this magic fuel tank, what provisions will need to be made, to address the nose-down pitch issue, as fuel is consumed? (Fuel tanks most often are located near the vehicle’s center-of-mass – largely for this reason.) I politely suggest that the designers should consider under-wing hard-point-mounted “bullet” tanks. Reduced bending loads on the wing center box; easier access for servicing (both fueling AND replacement); no effects on CG as fuel is consumed.

    The presumption of an available – and government-funded – hydrogen infrastructure is… presumptuous. I’m reminded of an ancient Chinese proverb/curse: “May you lead an interesting life.” This certainly is an… interesting… project.

  5. Wow, where to begin? Ignoring the climate change issues, I still have to smile when I read about any internal combustion engine being zero emissions. First, even combustion of hydrogen with air will produce oxides of nitrogen, plus copious amounts of water vapor in the upper atmosphere, which is regarded as a greenhouse gas. Second, liquid hydrogen has a lower energy density than either gasoline or jet fuel, so the aircraft’s fuel tanks will need to be larger than conventional tanks. Also, the tanks will have to be constructed of either a special aluminum alloy or 9% nickel stainless steel and designed as a double wall vacuum sealed dewar type vessel or a heavily insulated single wall tank (like the space shuttle’s external fuel tank). As Yars said, they cannot be incorporated into the wings, so putting them under the wings or in the aircraft’s cargo hold area will be necessary. Fortunately they will not be pressurized tanks since you cannot keep hydrogen in liquid form at ambient temperatures no matter how much pressure you apply. Then, all of the plumbing associated with the fuel system will also have to be stainless steel and fuel pumps will have to be specially designed for cryogenic service. All of this adds weight.

    If the technical issues for fuel handling and storage on the plane are not hard enough, a large-scale LH2 storage system at the airport will be even more challenging. The ground storage tanks will have to be designed similar to the planes’ tanks except much larger. Getting fuel to the airport will be a major issue since LH2 cannot be moved by pipeline. Only special tank trucks can move it. To my knowledge, there are currently no cryogenic rail cars in existence. At the airport, there can be no underground fuel distribution lines, so special tanker trucks will be needed, along with all the special transfer hoses and associated plumbing. NASA has spent decades learning how to store and handle liquid hydrogen, but even their systems would be small in comparison to a wide-spread aviation fuel network.

    Finally, the elephant in the room. There are two commercial scale methods for producing pure hydrogen – electrolysis and steam reforming. As mentioned earlier, electrolysis is extremely energy intensive and only about 80% efficient. It does not lend itself to large volume production. Reforming is the preferred high volume production method, but it uses a hydrocarbon feedstock as the source of the hydrogen. The hydrogen atoms are stripped off the carbon chains at high temperatures and pressures, leaving – guess what – carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide as a waste product. In industry, the CO and CO2 are sent to a nearby plant to be processed into fertilizer, but that is not a likely option in pure H2 fuel production. To minimize transportation problems, the better approach would be to have a small-scale H2 production facility based at each airport. So, the idea of a carbon neutral and zero emission aircraft fuel is a bit of a stretch. It is interesting that the public’s fear of hydrogen being so dangerous is actually less of an issue than with either gasoline or jet fuel. Any spills of liquid hydrogen will quickly vaporize and dissipate, being much lighter than air. Plus it burns with a low radiant emission flame, so even if it is burning, radiant heat damage is fairly low compared to conventional hydrocarbon fuels. Even so, a large scale hydrogen fuel network is not as attractive as it sounds. I wish Airbus luck with the concept, but I won’t be holding my breath.

    • Interesting chemistry! H2 + O2 yields oxides of nitrogen! Do you have a scientific source for that claim, including how much/unit of energy produced by burning H2 in air?

      I see you failed to note that burning fossil fuels also yields water vapor.

      You repeat the common climate science “skeptic” red herring that water vapor is a greenhouse gas. This is true, but its concentration in the atmosphere is governed by temperature: it is a feedback, not a forcing such as CO2, N2O, etc.

      Deploying and burning H2 as a fuel does indeed pose daunting problems, but Airbus apparently feels it’s worthwhile to tackle them. I am personally dubious that Airbus can conquer the problems economically, but I do not believe it is helpful to introduce misleading facts like “CO2 is also a greenhouse gas!” into the discussion. It reveals a misunderstanding of how the physical properties of H2O make it different from CO2 in how it behaves in the atmosphere, and what that means for the problem of human-caused climate change.

      • LOL. Sounds like you don’t know what the major component of the atmosphere is nor the chemistry of combustion. Your simplistic view also shows up in believing that trace gasses are driving the global climate. Just because an equation is “true” does not mean other greater factors are at work.

      • Dan, you will get NOX emissions from burning hydrogen in AIR, the same way you get it from burning gasoline or diesel. There is no nitrogen in either one of those materials, but you still get enough NOX emissions to cause air quality issues (smog & acid rain, anyone?). If you burn hydrogen with pure oxygen as in rocket engines, you will get no NOX, but when you use the oxygen in the air, which is 80% nitrogen, the reaction also creates oxides of nitrogen. Unless Airbus wants to also carry LOX tanks aboard, they will get NOX out the tail pipe of any internal combustion engine.

        I didn’t forget that hydrocarbon combustion also produces water vapor, but with hydrogen it is the only byproduct, so it is not truly emission free. Oh, and the amount is water vapor in the upper atmosphere is not totally temperature dependent. Only the visible vapor (i.e. Contrails) is temperature dependent. Even without contrails, the water vapor is still up there and will effect the light rays passing through it. CO2 is invisible to our eyes, but it still has an effect on light. I’m not getting into the climate debate here. I’m simply pointing out that using hydrogen as a fuel is not totally emission free and has some serious environmental consequences. If Airbus succeeds in making the hydrogen fuel concept work, then God bless them. Just don’t try to pass it off as zero emissions unless you can find a source of pure hydrogen lying around that we don’t know about.

  6. Hello, Hindenburg. Talk about suicide mission! This is a flying invitation to a fatal crash.
    Whoever thought this up should be locked in a hydrogen cell filled with methane gas (sic).
    I’m all in favor of zero emissions. But ashes to ashes isn’t the best way to do it, unless
    you love the bomb even more than Dr. Strangelove did. Granted, today’s technology is
    different from the past–micro-miniaturized, transistorized, liquefied. So what? It still
    burns the same way–and so will we. If you want to reduce pollution, stop wasting the
    resources we have, rather than using the most plentiful substance in the universe as a
    means to an end–the end of all human life, on a planet already suffused with thanatos.

  7. High-pressure liquid hydrogen, huh? Negative 425° Fahrenheit. What could go wrong?

    We LOVE CO2. Plants love CO2. They make oxygen from it. The only reason the environmental wackos chose carbon dioxide, which is a very weak “greenhouse gas” was that they could use it as a cudgel against the Western culture which has brought prosperity to the world.

    God. Can Europe, and especially Germany, get any crazier? Stop beating yourself over Hitler, boys – that happened long before nearly all of you were born.

  8. Amazing comments. I appreciate the learning curve.

    Not too long ago, Avweb posts an article that basically states the contribution to climate change due to commercial aircraft emissions was considerably lower than previously thought.

    Airbus wants to go after a potential “zero emissions” goal via exploration of hydrogen as a fuel. With all the grants, investment money, and various government financing that seems to become available when “green” energy solutions are being bandied about…why not? They get a two for one deal in being to explore new aircraft designs parallel to the hydrogen fuel powerplants development and not have to mortgage the company to do it.

    Maybe there is a solution to a problem we don’t have or solution to a problem we do have. It’s clear, even within the scientific community, along with aviation experts, and mainstream global citizenry…no one really knows or at best can agree.

    But there seems to be plenty of money available to support both sides of this issue. So, as a company…why not?

  9. I’m always stunned by the strength of the climate change denial and lack of scientific understanding among the readership of this website. Every time a “green” initiative, no matter how small, is reported on, commenters come out of the woodwork to repeat the same tired arguments that are, at best, an oversimplification of the facts, or at worst, outright lies.

    Aviation has a negative effect on our environment in many, many ways. Anyone who says differently is in denial, pushing an agenda, or trying to sell you something. No matter how much people kick and scream, we’re eventually going to have to find ways to mitigate the impact of the activity we all love so much. Dragging of heels is just going to make the pain worse in the future. Embrace the change now.

    Yes, there are obstacles to be overcome in bringing a concept like this into use, but there have been obstacles for every single technology that has entered our lives. None of it came easily. Problem solving is what engineers do for a living, so they will be able to find solutions to these problems. Whether those solutions are economically viable or tenable in other ways remains to be seen, but we will never know if we don’t try.

    • I’ve grown accustomed to non-engineers ( ? ) who continuously conjure up schemes that RELY upon things that do not exist, whether magic batteries, ubiquitous liquid hydrogen, or unicorn farts.

      I politely suggest that building a liquid hydrogen infrastructure would be a MUCH bigger technical challenge than would be designing and building aircraft that could burn hydrogen fuel. Kind of like a “Field of Nightmares” feature film – what if you build it, but nobody comes to fuel it?

      Lack of infrastructure is a “single-point-failure,” in this case. The very best implementation of a conceptually flawed idea…

      • Good point, a company like Airbus certainly doesn’t have any engineers to consult about this concept.

        As for infrastructure, I have yet to see someone point out anything that is physically impossible about it. The points raised have been “This will be really expensive” or “This will be really difficult”, but both those things can be solved by engineering and development. Just 20 years ago, if I had told you that Netflix was developing a service to stream 4K video over the internet, you would have said “Phsaw, do you know how much internet bandwidth costs? And it will take days to transfer that much data! This will never be viable, the infrastructure is a single point failure. The best implementation of a conceptually flawed idea”, and you would have been completely flat wrong.

        FFS YARS, things develop. People solve problems when problems need to be solved. We may not have found a solution to hydrogen infrastructure now, probably in no small part because there isn’t a need for it. If something like a hydrogen powered airplane turns out to work quite well and becomes a preferred option, there will be a need, and the infrastructure will be developed.

        In the meantime, go ahead and keep dumping on all efforts at incremental improvements or trying new things, declaring them impossible or conceptually flawed, as you invariably do on every. single. alternative technology. article.

    • No one is denying that climate changes, just the sketchy mathematics used when old ideas get trotted out again as “new” research. And yes, we already know these “solutions” are not economically viable or a technical reasonable in real world use.

      • Do we really know that? You can’t look at an engineering idea once and say it’ll never be viable. You have to look at it over and over again, as other technologies advance that may enable it.

        Northrop tried the flying wing bomber in the 40s and 50s. It had major problems with implementation, in no small part due to stability and control. We could have said “doesn’t work, never will” and gone along our merry way building tubes with wings. But it was looked at again with the advent of fly by wire flight controls. Suddenly the major problem with flying wing implementation was solvable, so we got the B-2, and eventually things like the RQ-170 and a bunch of other drones in that config. There are virtually unlimited examples of this.

        And yeah, you and several others here are absolutely denying climate change and questioning the science from a place of misunderstanding and malice, rather than a place of educated skepticism. There’s a difference.

  10. I suspect Airbus, being closer to the “pulse” of European politics and the large and noisy environmental contingent over there, feels more strongly than Boeing that it may become necessary to field some sort of hydrocarbon replacement sooner rather than later, regardless of the downside factors.

    True, the downsides of hydrogen as a fuel are many and obvious but hey, most of the technologies that underpin our everyday life require us to accept – or ignore – their often extensive bad sides. How much downside you will accept is all a matter of how much you want or need the technology in question.

    I’m happy to see them exploring the field…with their money rather than mine, of course.

  11. Airbus is very worried at how fast the idea of “flight shaming” has spread — even before Covid 19. People are realizing that with big jets fuel consumption is in litres per second, something the airline industry successfully skirted around for years.
    The whole hydrogen thing also relates to a big French state initiative to boost the gas — Air Liquide has pushed for it for years. And the other part of it is that France (and the US) still has lots of nuclear power — 70% of the nation’s electricity still, although the are plans to bring it down to 50% when the cows come home.
    Nuclear power stations are very difficult to turn down, they run at full capacity, or they are switched off, there is no half way. Which makes their electricity at night ideal for things like electric aluminium furnaces and making hydrogen — that is the logic. Also they put out tiny amounts of CO2.

  12. What a long read here!
    Just how many folks know the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere?
    Well, it is to be believed to be ~.04% up from a past level of .02%.
    That’s a BIG deal? Hummm. Have you seen double the growth of your bushes, trees, lawn – farmers having bumper crops which depends on CO2 for life? Of course not. But why not ? – when all this depends on CO2.
    Then you probably will have to admit that this increase is minuscule, BUT, then turn around & say CO2 is the major cause of climate change.
    Does that really make sense? over

  13. “If something like a hydrogen powered airplane turns out to work quite well and becomes a preferred option…”
    How could it become a preferred option if it cannot be fueled? Seriously.

    I’m quite facile in the art of the imposible. I’m also wary of the folly of the impractical. The key is knowing the difference.

  14. Okay, to beat a dead horse one more time… Anyone interested in seeing how hydrogen works as a fuel, I recommend you see the following YouTube article “The Truth about Hydrogen”.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7MzFfuNOtY
    It is mostly about hydrogen as an automotive fuel, but it does a good job of covering the production and distribution of H2 for a fuel network. That is the Achilles heel Yars and others have insisted is the problem with hydrogen as an aircraft fuel. Building a jet engine that runs on hydrogen is a piece of cake. Designing the storage tanks for LH2 to go on the airplane is a little harder. Building the infrastructure to produce hydrogen and move it to the airports is the really hard part. Airbus is basically working on the first point, and maybe the second, but it is leaving the hard part for others to figure out.

    As the YouTube piece presents, there is nothing about hydrogen production that is not already known quite well. The problem is in the thermodynamics of production that basically says it takes more energy – massive amounts of energy – to make hydrogen than you get out of it as a motive fuel. That goes for either cars or airplanes. There are modular water to hydrogen electrolysis units commercially available right now. They can be built to the size needed and placed at the end use location to avoid the pipeline or truck delivery problem (Water is pretty well available anywhere already). But, depending on the size of the airport and the volume needed, the units take up to 100 megawatts of power to make the desired amount. Then, you need additional megawatts to liquefy the gas. Assuming a medium sized production/liquefaction unit to produce, say 50 tons of LH2 a day (to fuel about twenty five 737 sized airliners a day) would probably consume 100 MW to produce the hydrogen and an additional 10 MW to liquefy it. Scale that up to 25 wide body aircraft and the demand jumps to over 150 tons per day per airport, which could easily consume about 260 mw of power a day per airport. That is a whole lot of windmills or solar panels.

    So, it is technically possible? Sure. Is it practical or economically feasible? Not unless you are willing to pay a whole lot to possibly reduce carbon emissions.