Airbus released three concepts for zero-emission aircraft that the aerospace company said could enter service by 2035. All of the concepts call for hydrogen as a primary power source.
By publishing the new concepts, Airbus said it seeks to lead on decarbonizing the aviation industry. The company chose hydrogen because it’s “an option which Airbus believes holds exceptional promise as a clean aviation fuel and is likely to be a solution for aerospace and many other industries to meet their climate-neutral targets.”
Each of the concepts, called ZEROe, has a different design. They are:
- A turbofan design for 120 to 200 passengers that has a range of 2,000-plus nautical miles, is capable of operating transcontinentally, and is 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,” Airbus said.
- A turboprop design for as many as 100 passengers that uses a turboprop engine instead of a turbofan and is 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,” the company said.
- A “blended-wing body” design for as many as 200 passengers, where the wings merge with the main body of the aircraft 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,” according to Airbus
“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.
Transitioning to hydrogen as the primary power source for these concept planes won’t be easy, however. Faury pointed out that Airbus will need help from government and industrial partners to scale up the technology.
“Airports will require significant hydrogen transport and refueling infrastructure to meet the needs of day-to-day operations,” the company noted. “Support from governments will be key to meet these ambitious objectives with increased funding for research and technology, digitalization, and mechanisms that encourage the use of sustainable fuels and the renewal of aircraft fleets to allow airlines to retire older, less environmentally-friendly aircraft earlier.”
Airline Industry Struggles with Emissions Targets
The Airbus vision of a hydrogen-powered future comes at a time when the airline industry faces continued challenges from the pandemic — and disagreements over setting emissions reduction targets.
In April, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) started pushing for revisions to the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), arguing for a different baseline because air travel had dropped off so much in 2020. Over the summer, the European Council asked for CORSIA revisions as well.
At the end of June, the UN aviation agency the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed to use 2019 for the CORSIA baseline calculation instead of 2020. Annie Petsonk, international counsel for EDF, criticized the move.
“Changing baselines is a bad precedent for the development of carbon markets in other countries and sectors,” she wrote online. “Ironically, it means that airlines will lose the first-mover advantage they had sought to secure through CORSIA, as other carbon market actors will beat them to the punch on long-term supply contracts.”