Airbus Looks At Superconducting Electric Airplanes


Airbus is floating a new idea for hydrogen that it says could make electric aircraft much more efficient and therefore more viable. The company is looking at ways to use liquid hydrogen to cool superconducting components on the aircraft to greatly improve their ability to make power. “With the ASCEND demonstrator, we’ll pave the way for a real breakthrough in electric propulsion for future aircraft,” said spokesman Bour Schaeffer. “The importance of this work can’t be understated: cryogenic and superconducting technologies could be key enablers to enhancing the performance of low-emission technologies, which will be essential to achieving our ambitious decarbonisation targets.”

Liquid hydrogen exists at -263 degrees Celsius and at those temperatures certain metals lose virtually all of their electrical resistance, which is a major factor in the efficiency of electrical components. ASCEND intends to bathe the superconducting wires, connectors and motors in the super cold hydrogen. That will allow them to be two to three times smaller and lighter than  regular components putting out the same power. Supercooling electrical components is a well-understood technology for earthbound applications and Airbus says it will adapt those methods for its airborne testbed.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. Well and good, but by cooling with the hydrogen, you warm up the hydrogen. This will change it into a gas – what is done with this gas? Dumped overboard (= increased fuel consumption) or cool it somehow (= weight and complexity).
    No free lunch here.

    • Don’t ask hard questions, Cameron. These people are busy saving the planet and are on a Mission. Leave ’em alone … they’re trying to feel good. You forgot to ask how much energy was used to liquefy the hydrogen, make the equipment necessary to store and use it and the added weight to the flight vehicle to carry all that crap. This idea is as goofy as the Airbus THING they brought to Airventure a couple of years ago with a 15 minute range. Oh well … Airbus must have more money than sense?

      • The planet does not need saving.

        It was here before there were people and God has a plan for it as He does for us, and it is good.

        With that said, I can see the sense in this concept but I’d assume the hydrogen would be used to run a fuel cell to power the motor(s). Batteries, for aviation in particular, I think are a dead end process.

      • The Wright Flyer had far less than 15‘ endurance to start with and despite all the naysayers who tried to convince us that powered flight was impossible, we have come quite far. Flying is also about doing things elegantly and with the least amount of energy and structure required to perform the task at hand. This fits in there nicely if we find a way to cool the hydrogen without a lot of carbon dioxide emissions and don’t forget kerosene doesn’t arrive in our tanks without a footprint.

  2. Progress is incremental and filled with failures. Edison’s success came after thousands of trials. At least this company recognizes that fossil fuels, in addition to being finite, are the root cause of global warming. Give ’em a break. Unless you have a better idea, just let them proceed.

    • “…fossil fuels, in addition to being finite, are the root cause of global warming.”
      That’s an article of faith. The Earth warmed and cooled before man lit the first campfire. “Root cause,” indeed.

      • Indeed it did warm and cool before man came along. But the geologic and fossil records all indicate that it has never in its history warmed as quickly, and sharply, as it has since man lit the first campfire.

          • Thank You, Roger.

            The root cause we really need to get at is the one where you cannot trust anything coming out of academia anymore.

        • I would not call 1 degree per hundred years a “quick warming”. I survived a warming of 25 degrees in just 24 hours yesterday and I am just fine.

  3. … and by “academia” you mean the folks who have spent their lives studying problems, conducting scientific investigations into the causes and possible solutions to them, sharing that knowledge with their colleagues and students who will continue to advance our knowledge of how the world works, and never get rich doing it.

    Yeah, that’s the ticket. Castigate the smart ones who know more than you and are trying to save your ass even though you won’t listen to them.

  4. Hi Chip,
    Apparently you and I are on the same page.
    On the other hand, some of the comments to my summaries of scientifically and historically derived data are emotional, rather than analytic. Perhaps, those responders are not pilots. Pilots, especially, are trained to understand that safely operating in the national air space requires the objective evaluation of data, especially the awareness and understanding of one’s emotions and emotional responses. The last letter of IMSAFE refers to this fact, “emotion”.

  5. There has never been any problem with burning up energy or wasting it. Sources for various energies to choose from are just as limited and finite as the fuels themselves. Many things work well in theory or the lab, but in reality may not be realistic. Personal and private chartering flights would greatly reduce the demand of the “jet set!” Local economies would blossom and reduce the problems associated with commercial flight. There are fuels that are pollution free and these can produce electricity for light aircraft. Airplanes should be more affordable and less restricted. By the time you include getting up early for long lines at the airport with layovers and scheduling problems – privet flying is almost just as fast and a lot more enjoyable!

  6. Like many I have serious doubts about the practicality & viability of hydrogen as an energy storage and transmission medium, but there’s certainly no harm in developing the technologies to work with it…as long as we keep government fiat at bay. So have at it, Airbus!

  7. Why not just carry liquified nitrous oxide to increase the fuel efficiency of current engines at altitude? Oh yea, carrying huge quantities of flammable liquified gasses is always a bad idea. I forgot.

  8. Guys … did some of you read the article? They’re not talking about using hydrogen as a fuel source … they’re talking about using liquid hydrogen in a cryogenic capacity to cool system components to remove electrical resistance in the ‘system’. That makes the electrical power carried more efficient. I don’t agree with this concept as being practical but there’s a big difference between “superconducting” ideas via cooling and using liquid hydrogen as the actual source of energy.

    • Larry, thermodynamics says that the sum of the entropy’s of interacting thermodynamic system NEVER decreases. That means this system is LESS efficient by definition.

      • We’re talking about two different things. I think Airbus’ idea is that if you can reduce electrical resistance in the current carrying parts of such a system, the electrical energy available for use onboard will be more efficient by both reducing resistance and making the system components lighter? Ultimately, you’re correct if you measured the entirety of the energy production, storage and use parts of such an idea. I’d also question what happens if such a system loses the super cooling capability? Does the wiring and components then burn up. I think the FAA would have a little something to say about that.

        That’s why I said I don’t think it’s practical.

        • Yea, about that weight thing. After adding plumbing, regulators, containment vessels, cooling jackets, insulation and new instrumentation, imagine just how much weight the existing components will have to loose just to break even!

          Oh, and don’t forget the ice accumulations on this new -263 degree C system when calculating how much the new system needs to be just to break even….

  9. Sure the airplane becomes more efficient; but the entire process of each flight becomes less so.

    it’s less sustainable.

  10. If hydrogen fuel cells are used it would at least work. electric propulsion does have some advantages over combustion engines but batteries are a dead end to power them, even more so in aviation than in cars.

    With that said it’s a fools errand to chase this process. Oil remains cheap and plentiful, especially in the US.