Airbus promotes hydrogen shift over next decade

Society at large needs to shift to a greater use of renewable hydrogen over the course of the next decade if it is to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement, according to Airbus.

The comments were made by Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus vice president for zero-emission aircraft, and come in the wake of the firm’s pledge to build the world’s first zero-emission aircraft by 2035.

Its plans rely on creating hybrid systems, using hydrogen-burning gas turbine engines as well as hydrogen fuel cells to generate electric power.

Indeed, the company is currently conducting studies to determine how scalable a hydrogen fuel cell pod configuration, among others, could be to large commercial aircraft.

Airbus has previously unveiled three concept aircraft using hydrogen-powered designs.

The latest innovative pod approach consists of six, eight-bladed hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered pods mounted beneath the aircraft wing.

According to its designer, Matthieu Thomas, the pod configuration is essentially a distributed fuel cell propulsion system that delivers thrust to the aircraft via six propulsion units arranged along the wing.

“Hydrogen fuel cells have very different design considerations, so we knew we had to come up with a unique approach,” he said.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology has yet to be scaled up to a passenger-size large commercial aircraft.

Smaller experimental hydrogen aircraft, comprising up to 20 seats, can rely on a traditional fixed-wing configuration with two propellers. But more passenger capacity and longer range require another solution.

This is why Airbus is studying a variety of configurations, including pods, to determine which option has the potential to scale up to larger aircraft.

This is not the first time that the aviation industry has sought to use hydrogen. Its application in aviation goes back to the days of airships in the early 20th Century, but the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 brought that era to an end.

The Hindenburg disaster occurred on 6 May, 1937, in Manchester Township, New Jersey, United States. The German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught on fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst.

More recently, from 2000 to 2002, Airbus was involved in the EU-funded Cryoplane project, which studied the feasibility of a liquid hydrogen-fuelled aircraft.

A current issue with the majority of hydrogen supplies today is that they are derived from methane, which is mixed with steam at high pressures. It is an energy-intensive process that creates significant quantities of carbon dioxide.

In order to be truly zero emission, aircraft would need to be powered by hydrogen produced in a much more environmentally friendly way – and large quantities would be needed.