Nick Webb looks at how technology can help make air travel cleaner.
Photo by Florian van Duyn
Aviation technology giant Airbus has announced their ambition of “bringing a zero-emission commercial aircraft to market by 2035.” Airbus are exploring multiple different alternative fuel sources to replace fossil fuel engines at varying levels of development.
Electric aircraft are already flying in several different capacities, and there are experiments in unmanned solar aircraft; the main focus in research now, however, is hydrogen power. On 21st September 2020, Airbus unveiled plans for three different hydrogen-powered concept planes.
Currently, Airbus has both electric and hybrid-fuel propulsion aircraft in production on multiple projects, several of which have already undergone testing. Since 2019, Airbus has had a fully-dedicated alternative-propulsion system testing facility in Germany.
The company has had fully electric aircraft developed since 2010, when CriCri, the first all-electric aerobic aircraft, was developed. An all-electric, twin-propellor E-Fan plane successfully flew across the English Channel in 2015, and there are multiple other concept aircraft focusing on remotely-piloted flight as well as vertical take-off and landing craft.
The main focus, however, is on hydrogen. Research done by the Hydrogen Council, a global coalition dedicated to research on using hydrogen as an alternative renewable fuel source, has suggested that the gas can be used either as a method of propulsion, or in creating synthetic e-fuels.
As a propulsion system, hydrogen would be combusted and converted into electrical power, creating a completely green hydro-electric propulsion chain. As a synthetic fuel source, hydrogen and carbon dioxide can be combined to create a fuel with net-zero greenhouse emissions. Airbus has said “Hydrogen has the potential to reduce aviation’s CO2 emissions by up to 50%.”
Any large-scale conversion to hydrogen-fuelled air transport would, however, require a lot of investment in refuelling infrastructure. Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury has said:
“The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem.”
The Concept Planes
The three ZEROe concept designs have been described as a “historic moment for the commercial aviation sector.” The designs include a turbofan design which could carry up to 200 passengers over a range of 2000+ nautical miles, running on a liquid hydrogen-powered turbine. The second, smaller turboprop design could travel up to 1000 miles with 100 passengers on board. The third, in appearance at least, looks the least like the aircraft we are currently familiar with. The “blended-wing body” design gives the craft a longer potential range, and has wings which merge with the main fuselage.
In a development plan laid out by Chief Technology Officer for Airbus, Grazia Vittadini, the company said that the first results would be generated by mid-2021, and a final concept would be selected by 2025.
In order for airlines to consider these new designs as viable alternatives to traditionally fuelled planes by 2035, there needs to be significant investment in hydrogen transportation and storage, as well as creating refuelling infrastructure for every day operations.
Mr Faury commented that this marks the “most important transition this industry has ever seen.”
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